A Cross-Cultural Analysis of the Management and Motives of Volunteers within Special Olympics

  • Elizabeth Carlin

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


"Take away volunteers... sport dies" (deCruz, 2005; pg 83). These words highlight the important role of volunteers within the sports sector. Additionally, the role of sports and physical activity in lowering health risks of people with disabilities has been well evidenced (van Schijndel-speet et al, 2014). Despite this, a number of barriers remain in place for people with disabilities to take part in regular sport and exercise. In particular, volunteers have the ability to play a pivotal role in the provision of sporting opportunities for people with disabilities, thus impacting their overall health. Research within the area of sports volunteering has had a central focus on the motives of volunteers. However, there is a lack of research concerning the potential variations of motives, demographics and engagement of volunteers aligned to disability sports organisations. With over one million volunteers, Special Olympics is one of the largest organisations who provide sporting opportunities for people with intellectual disabilities, therefore making it an important case study within this field.
Therefore, this study aims to gain a thorough understanding of the people who volunteer for Special Olympics and why, as an organisation, it is effective in ensuring high retention rates. Alongside this, this body of work will offer an insight into the volunteers' views on the practices and strategies of the Special Olympics organisation concerning volunteer management, recruitment and retention. As a multinational organisation, it is important to consider the potential impact of cultural expectations and variations on the overall policy development within such organisations.

A mixed methodology protocol was adopted to permit the collection of both a range and depth of data from both volunteers and staff across three Special Olympics National Programs; Special Olympics Ireland, Special Olympics Great Britain and Special Olympics Hellas (Greece). A total of 403 volunteers responded to an online survey which focused on demographics, volunteer experience, motivation and volunteer awareness, as well as knowledge of organisational practices and policies. Findings show the creation of a culture and community within Special Olympics, as a whole, which plays a more significant role in determining volunteer demographics and motivation than the cultural variations evident across individual National Programs. However, a number of inconsistencies exist both within and across National Programs in the experiences of volunteers regarding some of the key processes of recruitment, communication and one’s ability to engage.

Overall, a more co-ordinated response is required from National Programs in relation to the recruitment and retention of volunteers and this response needs to be tailored to the specific demographics of the volunteers within each National Program. Also, it is clear that Special Olympics provides a learning opportunity for other voluntary sporting and community organisations as its ability to transcend the sports and disability sectors and recruit volunteers from both is unique within this sector. Ethical approval for this research was obtained from the Ulster University ethical committee.

Date of AwardMay 2019
Original languageEnglish
SupervisorDavid Hassan (Supervisor) & Gavin Breslin (Supervisor)


  • volunteerism
  • disability sport
  • intellectual disability
  • culture
  • volunteer engagement

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