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Scott Martin

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From "Us and Them" to "We": Participative Organizational Culture

If you want to know how the retirement of the Baby Boomers will change volunteerism, look at how Boomers changed the workplace. When leading-edge Boomers began to assume positions of leadership in America’s corporations, they embraced a philosophy known as participative management. Participative management is about distributing power in an organization so that everyone can affect real change. While the “organizational men” of the Greatest Generation preferred centralized power and top-down hierarchy, Boomers brought a different vision characterized by employee empowerment, shared decision-making, self-directed teams and synergy.

The Challenge of Organizational Culture

Will post-career Baby Boomers expect anything less than full equality and collaboration when they come to our nonprofits to volunteer? Participative volunteer management is the name I have given to a new, collaborative way of leading volunteers. I realize, though, that implementing this new approach is more complicated than just installing a suggestion box or starting up a self-directive team. It means significant change in the organization’s culture. If a nonprofit’s shared assumptions and corresponding language and behavior remain top-down and autocratic, experiments in participation, for staff or volunteers, are doomed to failure.


“I-centric” vs. “We-centric” Organizational Cultures

In her two books, “Creating We” and “The DNA of Leadership”, Judith E. Glaser describes two types of organizational cultures: I-centric and We-centric. Some representative characteristics of these two cultures taken from her books appear below:

I-Centric We-Centric
Power over others Power with others
Fear Trust
Separation/disconnection Unity/connection
Competition Cooperation
Withholding Sharing power and information
Territoriality Open boundaries
Highly critical Highly supportive
Finding fault Focusing on what others can do
Fear of mistakes Learn from mistakes
Exclusion Inclusion

(Judith E. Glaser. The DNA of Leadership. Platinum Press, Massachusetts, 2006)

Think about the culture of your nonprofit. Where does it fit on the I-centric/We-centric continuum?


Organizational Culture and the Volunteer Program

If your organization is fairly we-centric, you are fortunate. You probably have an Executive Director and/or middle managers that believe in sharing leadership and empowering others. Chances are that you bring this same collaborative perspective to the management of your volunteer program. Your volunteers probably feel that they can make a meaningful contribution to the organization. They feel valued and see themselves as equal partners with staff. They feel that their point of view is listened to and taken seriously. The roles they are given are meaningful. They are trusted to participate in decision-making that directly affects the work they do. The volunteer program, in short, is a co-creation with the volunteers, and not the Volunteer Resources Manager’s own personal immortality project.

If your organization is closer to the I-centric pole of the continuum, don’t despair. You are not alone. But note: if you do not feel empowered as a paid employee, your volunteers probably don’t feel empowered either. No matter how hard you may try to insulate them from the larger dysfunctional culture, they are bound to be affected by it. And that culture has probably affected you, too, in ways of which you are not even aware. It can be difficult to treat volunteers the way you would really like to when you yourself are feeling so disempowered and vulnerable because of your organization’s fear-based culture. The more insecure you feel, the more likely it is that you will over control your volunteers. You will insist on making all of the decisions. You will only place volunteers in low-level, “safe” roles. A distinct boundary will exist between staff and volunteers. It is more likely that volunteers will be seen as a potential liability to be controlled rather than as a potential power to be unleashed.

Scarcity and the Need to Control


Many of us in nonprofits, particularly small ones, live with a constant sense of scarcity. Maybe this is because nonprofits largely depend on third party funding to survive. As an employee in a nonprofit, you never know when funding will be lost and programs and even jobs will have to be cut. There never seems to be enough hands or money to do the job the way you would really like to do it. You are always trying to do more with less. When such a cloud of scarcity surrounds you, it is not easy to trust, let go of control and collaborate. Perhaps this is one reason why nonprofits, which you would think would be models of democracy, are so often closed systems, resistant to change and risk averse.

Language and Unintended Messages

Tamara J. Woodbury, CEO of the Girl Scouts in Arizona, thought that she had a collaborative organizational culture. A survey revealed, however, that many of her volunteers felt that the organization didn’t trust them. Then, in a review of a 4-page brochure to recruit volunteers, she found that the words “must,” “mandatory,” or “required” appeared 84 times.

In our zeal to promote the health and safety of girls, we had unknowingly used command-and-control language that implicitly communicated that we did not trust our volunteers to make their own decisions in the best interests of the girls. When we further examined our organizational practices and training curricula, we realized we had assumed that the behavior of our volunteers and staff could be controlled through the use of rulemaking, mandatory training, rigid boundary-setting, and organizational authority distributed through a positional hierarchy. Over time, these practices had begun to generate unintended consequences in our organization’s culture.

--Tamara J. Woodbury. “Building Organizational Culture—Word by Word”. Leader to Leader, No. 39, Winter 2006

What kinds of messages, intended and unintended, are you sending out to volunteers? Try a simple experiment. Review your volunteer manual. What words predominate? Are you using a vocabulary of control or one of empowerment?

Words of Control No, Not, Can’t, Never, Must, Ought, Shouldn’t, Required, Mandatory, Prohibited, Grounds for Dismissal, Chain of Command
Words of Empowerment Yes, May, Can, Welcomed, Encouraged, Invited, Empowered, Authorized, Collaboration, We, Us

Basic Trust vs. Basic Distrust

At the heart of the issue of organizational culture is a question of trust. Can other people be trusted most of the time or can you never be too careful? Are employees and volunteers basically good people who want to contribute to the greater good? Or are they walking time bombs that need to be closely monitored and controlled? Do we go about business assuming that the glass is half-full or half-empty? How we answer these questions says a lot about how we view the world, ourselves and other people.

Traditional volunteer management has tended to err on the side of seeing volunteers from an overly “half-empty” point of view. That’s why we are so keen on structure, rules and authority. It’s also why we regularly allow risk-management concerns to paralyze us. But there is another way. It’s time that we see volunteers as the awesome power and abundance that they are.


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