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Scott Martin

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Participative Volunteer Management: The Emerging Paradigm? (Part 1)

Editor's note: This is a two-part article.

Many of us are beginning to sense that formal, organizationally-based volunteerism is in trouble. Probably no two volunteer resources managers will agree on what the problem is, but more and more of us are feeling that we are out of step with the world around us. The late Mary Merrill and Nancy Macduff brought to our attention the shift from “collective” to “reflexive” volunteering and the emergence of the “vigilante” volunteer. Colleen Kelly has opened our eyes to the limitations of traditional job design and has called for a “person-centered,” rather than “position-centered,” approach. I have written about the Baby Boomers and the challenges they present for traditional volunteer programs.

The World Has Changed Faster Than We Have

The management philosophy of our profession has changed little since the 1950’s. The world, however, has undergone profound changes since that time.

  • Changing culture- We live in a world today where there is far more cultural diversity, many more competing ideologies and far looser social ties than in the past. The relative collectivism of the 1950’s has been replaced by a more individualistic culture. Regular, ongoing volunteering; unquestioned loyalty, and a willingness to do repetitive, routine work are volunteer behaviors that are rapidly disappearing. We live less and less in a world of civic duty, social obligation and self-sacrifice and more in one dominated by choice, personal vision and self-fulfillment. The way we continue to manage volunteers does not take these changes into account.
  • Changing work- In the 1950’s the world of work was dominated by manufacturing. People worked in highly defined jobs where brawn was more valued than brains. Today we find ourselves in an information age. Rather than making widgets on an assembly line, workers now are much more likely to be processing information on a computer. Volunteering has changed in a similar fashion. In the past the work done by volunteers was largely indirect client service, some direct client service and lots of low-skilled administrative work. Today more and more volunteers are doing high-skilled direct service and organizational capacity building. Volunteer programs are not so much looking for an extra pair of hands, but specialized knowledge. It’s not just drivers, receptionists and office workers we are looking for, but IT professionals, management consultants and project leaders. The management philosophy that served us well in volunteerism’s “industrial age” will not necessary work in its “information age.”
  • Changing people- Much of what we do in volunteerism was shaped by the volunteering of the Greatest Generation. Top-down management styles, highly defined positions, recognition based on hours or years of service, large recognition luncheons, uniforms, etc. made sense when this civic minded and conforming generation made up the bulk of our volunteers. Today our Greatest Generation volunteers have all but disappeared. The Baby Boomers, Gen-Xers and Nexters who are our volunteers now have very different generational characteristics. One particularly important difference is that they are far more individualistic and self-directive than their Greatest Generation counterparts. They want meaningful work, more influence, more decision-making power and a more active role in designing the work that they will do. The traditional, top-down, authoritarian model of management simply does not address the needs of these new generations of volunteers.
  • Changing competitive environment- The number of non-profits has increased dramatically since the 1950’s and more and more is expected from them than ever before. Unfortunately, funding has decreased and while there are many large non-profits, most remain small with limited staff and resources. One way these organizations can remain competitive is to tap into the greater, combined intelligence of their volunteers. But do non-profits really what the ideas of their volunteers? Traditional volunteer management theory is really more about controlling volunteers than about unleashing their potential to transform organizations. It offers little help to non-profits looking to become high-performance organizations through a new kind of volunteer involvement.

The Limitations of the Directive Model

The top-down, directive model of volunteer management that worked well enough in the past no longer serves us well. While there will always be certain situations (disaster response, for example) where a directive model is called for, what is most needed today is a more participative approach in which management and volunteers work together as partners.


Directive Volunteer Management Participative Volunteer Management
Objective is to serve management; organizational structure with ED and Board at the top, employees next, then volunteers and customers (clients and community) at the bottom. Objective is to serve the customers; organizational structure with customers on the top, volunteers next, then employees and ED and Board at the bottom.
All decision-making power vested in the volunteer resources manager and ED. Shared decision-making; goal is consensus; volunteers empowered to make decisions directly related to their work.
Volunteer resources manager and staff as the “experts” create highly defined volunteer positions and then look for volunteers to fill them. Volunteer resources manager and volunteers co-create “customized” roles that utilize specialized skills while still addressing the organization’s mission.
Volunteers work primarily independently of one another on discrete functions of a larger process. More volunteers working together as self-directive teams with responsibility for a whole process.
Volunteer resources manager as “boss” and enforcer. Volunteers as “subordinates.” Volunteer resources manager as coach and facilitator. Volunteers as “partners.”
Investment primarily made on the development of the manager; volunteers trained to do specific jobs. Equal investment made in the development of the manager and the volunteers; ongoing volunteer development such as team-building and leadership development.
Focus on extrinsic rewards such as volunteer recognition. Focus on job enrichment and granting increased authority as well as extrinsic rewards.
Volunteer resources manager responsible for monitoring the quality of client service; limited change and innovation. Manager and volunteers all responsible for monitoring client service; continuous improvement; constant change and innovation.


During the 1990’s most of the Fortune 1000 companies throughout the world adopted the philosophy of participative management. This is the idea that managers, employees and the company’s bottom line all benefit when decision-making power is distributed throughout the organization. When employees “participate” in decision-making they have a greater sense of ownership, are more innovative, more satisfied and productive. Participative management was seen as the key to delivering better customer service, continuous quality improvement and remaining competitive in the global marketplace. While some companies were more successful than others in implementing participative management, managers and researchers alike agree that it works.

Volunteer management needs to, and may be already going through, a similar evolution. Participative volunteer management, the emerging paradigm, is simply the process of sharing decision-making power with volunteers so that they are empowered to affect real change. We cannot attract today’s individualistic, self-directive volunteers unless we are willing to share our power with them. We cannot increase the number of volunteers in our organizations if we continue to think we have to initiate and control the work done by everyone of them. And our non-profits will not survive in this competitive environment unless we give up the notion that paid staff have all the answers and begin to tap into the collective wisdom of our volunteers.


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