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Scott Martin

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Participative Visions in Volunteer Management: Selected Quotations (Part 1)

[Editor's note: This is part one of a two-part article.]

What I have described as participative volunteer management in my immediately prior two-part article is not a new idea. The concept of sharing decision-making power with volunteers so they are empowered to initiate change has occurred with some frequency in the literature of volunteer management since the early 1980’s. While participative volunteer management has been talked about, it has not been systematized or applied to any great extent. It has remained a minor theme, overshadowed by the dominate ideology of top-down, directive management with its emphasis on hierarchical organizational structure, command and control, centralized decision-making and highly-defined volunteer positions.

In this article, I would like to share some quotations that in various ways call for a more participative approach to managing volunteers. I am not suggesting that these writers would necessarily agree with all aspects of what I am calling “participative volunteer management”, but their comments taken together do suggest an alternative vision, a “road not taken” that we still might explore.

As early as 1983, Eva Schindler-Rainman wrote an article entitled, “Transition Strategies for the Volunteer World” in which she identified 7 transitions or emerging trends in volunteer management. Her fourth transition is the earliest reference to participative volunteer management I have been able to find:

Transition No. 4
There is a clear movement from hierarchical organization structures to flatter, more participative organization structures and communication patterns.

This means participation in influencing the system at every level of the organization, including a change in leadership patterns and changes in meeting patterns to make meetings more participatory and productive. Open system and temporary system models will become a reality, placing responsibility and authority where action needs to be taken. Systems will need to be continuously open to change and experimentation, with personnel learning transition management strategies and skills.

(Posted on with permission of THE JOURNAL OF VOLUNTEER ADMINISTRATION from its Spring 1984 issue, Volume II, No. 3, pp. 45-49. Copyright 1983, Association for Volunteer Administration.

In 1993, Sue Vineyard published a highly prophetic book entitled, “Megatrends & Volunteerism: Mapping the Future of Volunteer Programs.” Acknowledging her debt to Total Quality Management, she introduced the two concepts of “work circles” (i.e. self-directed teams) and “leadershift”. The volunteer program of the future, she believed, would be composed of “circles” or teams of specially-skilled volunteers and staff formed around specific processes (e.g. fund raising) where leadership would “shift” from one individual to another as their particular expertise was needed. Vineyard identified two assumptions in volunteer management theory that should be reevaluated: 1) that “jobs must be defined as narrowly as possible” and 2) that “workers (volunteers) need close, direct supervision.” She realized that the paradigm change she was suggesting would be difficult to accept for many volunteer resources managers:

There are many people who have great difficulty letting go of control and stepping instead into such a trust arrangement that is based on positive assumptions that everyone involved is dedicated to the mission, willing to do their work and able to interact cooperatively with other workers regardless of position. There are those who talk about their belief in collaborative relationships but when push comes to shove, cannot really participate in them. Letting go often seems to be more difficult for some people than taking control

One of the greatest measurements of the maturity of volunteerism will, I believe, come when we see volunteer program executives reach out beyond the confines of Management by Objectives (MBO) to embrace empowering trust relationships which resist “we-they” mentality, unrealistic demands on the manager and an insistence on compliant workers

(Megatrends & Volunteerism, Sue Vineyard. Heritage Arts Publishing, Downers Grove, IL, page 190)

When reading Ivan Scheier you can’t help but think that his life’s work was about bringing formal, organizationally-based volunteering more inline with his real love - the all-volunteer group. This quotation from an article written in 1993, shows just how opposed Scheier was to the tight control often imposed on volunteers in organizational settings:

Everything we've done with organized volunteers - like job descriptions, supervision, evaluation - says to people, "You really don't have a choice. If you work for us, we're going to take all these choices away from you, and you'll be structured and controlled." Control is really what it's about. This may work for some people, but there are lots of other structures that are more empowering.

("Guerrilla Goodness: Making Dreams a Realty Through Volunteerism" Interview of Ivan by Ed and Gay Wynn in the magazine "In Context" #37. 1994. pages 27-29.

In a later article, Scheier described one of those more empowering structures, which he called the “people approach” to volunteer management.

In the world of paid work, and much of the world of Volunteer Administration, we tend to start from, what job/needs are, and then seek people to fit into these jobs. (Ordinarily understood that a relatively few people decide what those jobs will be--but that might be arguable.) Following the Minimax principle we go in just the "opposite" direction, building the job around the person rather than trying to fit the person to the job. In other words, we start by discovering what the person wants to do, and can do (glad gifts, window of work, etc.) then try to connect this to a place where it can be productively engaged in meeting real needs…Indeed, we aren't going to make serious progress involving presently uninvolved people until we do find ways to base helping more on what is satisfying, even enjoyable, and more largely self-selected on the part of the potential helper. I know this cannot always be done, but I believe it can be done more than we do it now by applying the "people approach" (vs. "job approach") principle: start with the person and try to find the right job rather than start with the job and try to find the right person. Defining terms might also be "people-based" vs. "boss-based," or "asset-driven" vs. "obligation-driven."

(The New Volunteerism Project: the Archival Collection of Ivan Scheier, Section 1, Part II, pages 28-32.

Before leaving Ivan Scheier I should mention that Colleen Kelly wrote an important article in 2004, “The Road Not Taken,” that reconfirmed the importance of Scheier’s vision for our time. “I fee,” Kelly wrote, “that this is one of the most pressing current challenges: developing a people-centered process rather than a position-centered one – the road not yet taken. (E-Volunteerism, Volume V, Issue 1, Oct-Dec. 2004.


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