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Performance Management of Volunteers in the Nonprofit Sector


I Introduction
II High Performance Work Systems
III Summary and Discussion of Research Results
IV Conclusion
V References

--submitted by Kevin H. Johnson who has worked in the nonprofit sector supervising volunteers for twenty years.

I Introduction

The nonprofit sector has experienced tremendous growth and makes a substantial contribution to the economy and social welfare. Whereas most nonprofits rely on volunteers in some manner, this growth has led to expanding volunteer roles. There is also growing pressure to improve accountability in the effective performance of these organizations. With this has come the call for more management expertise in the effective management of volunteers. Yet, little is known about how to effectively manage volunteers in a way that improves their performance.

Employed staff are seldom trained to properly supervise volunteers (Adams, 1996). This raises several questions:

  1. Are managers and organizations simply left at the mercy of volunteers who are not obligated to carry out their tasks apart from their own goodwill?
  2. Are there systems and procedures that can improve volunteer performance?
  3. What is the best way to ensure that the volunteers have a productive and meaningful experience?

These are important questions if volunteers are key for fulfilling the organization’s mission. This article is a summary of a study that was undertaken to examine the effect of high performance work practices on the performance of volunteers within nonprofit organizations.

II High Performance Work Systems

Traditional approaches to managing people have typically involved exercising authority to control employee behavior, which is leveraged by a pay cheque. Feelings that such practices do not fit the volunteer environment has no doubt led many nonprofit managers to resist the adoption of more formal management practices.

However, management practices have developed high-performance work systems that have the potential of being more suitable to the volunteer work environment. These systems reject the more traditional approach to managing human resources through control and coercion. Instead they concentrate on building high-commitment and high-involvement of workers by encouraging identification with the organization’s mission and goals, along with sharing information and decision making in order to improve performance.

In light of these developments in management practices, nonprofit managers that have been resistant to more formal management practices should be encouraged to consider new ways of doing things.

There is a variety of research available pertaining to volunteers. Yet, effective performance management of volunteers has received little attention. As a result this research was based on the assumption that high performance management systems proven to be effective with paid workers would also be effective with volunteer workers.

Therefore, this research seeks to determine whether or not high performance work systems do improve volunteer performance and if so, which practices are the most effective in driving volunteer effectiveness?

The term high performance work systems has come into use to describe the management of human resources by high-commitment management and high-involvement management. High-commitment management focuses on helping employees to identity with the organization’s goals thereby encouraging them to achieve those goals, which in turn improves the organization’s effectiveness. High-involvement management focuses on empowering employees through information sharing and decentralized decision-making. Access to information and the ability to make decisions that effect the employee’s work situation will potentially result in higher productivity (Zacharatos, Barling and Iverson, 2005).

In a study of high-performance work systems on workplace safety, Zacharatos, Barling, & Iverson (2005) proposed a set of ten practices that compose a high performance work system.

  1. Selective recruitment: An extensive screening and selection process increases the likelihood of getting the best people and also has a “symbolic” aspect to it in that when an individual passes through a thorough screening process high performance expectations are created and the person feels that they have joined a choice organization.
  2. Extensive training: Training is effective to the extent that workers are actually able to use their new skills in the workforce and are not restricted by old work structures.
  3. Self-managed teams and decentralized decision-making: Empowering employees to have more control of their own work processes increases an employee’s sense of satisfaction and productivity.
  4. Information sharing: Staff need access to information in order to do their jobs effectively whereas withholding important company information impedes employee performance.
  5. Adequate compensation: Good wages are effective in attracting more and better applicants to the organization.
  6. Transformational leadership: Transformational leadership characteristics (idealized influence, inspirational motivation, intellectually stimulating, individualized consideration) support the task of improved performance.
  7. Measurement of management practices and employee performance: It is important to measure the management practices that build trust and support employee performance.
  8. Reduced status distinctions: Reducing status distinctions discourages an “us” versus “them” mentality, encourages communication and common goal seeking.
  9. Employment security: When employees do not fear easily losing their jobs both the organization and the employees benefit. For example, employees are more likely to repay that commitment by being willing to contribute to improving the work process and both are more likely to invest in training when there is security in the employment relationship.
  10. High-quality work: Jobs should be designed to reduce ambiguity and engage workers both intellectually and emotionally.

This study examines six high performance work practices used in managing volunteers: selective recruitment, extensive training, recognition (in place of adequate compensation), measurement of performance, involvement (self-managed teams and information sharing combined), and transformational leadership. The study specifically wants to know if high performance practices that are used in managing paid workers will improve the performance of volunteer workers. It should be noted that these practices are interrelated, and no individual practice is likely to produce significant results by themselves (Pfeffer, 1995).

III Summary and Discussion of Research Results


An anonymous self-reporting survey was constructed and then distributed through email invitations. Surveys were completed and submitted electronically. This process ensured that the data were not associated with any individual email address, thus preserving anonymity. The email contact list was developed from both online and printed publicly available non-profit directories. Invitations to participate in this survey were sent to 1,117 email addresses across Canada. Responses were received from 196 organizations (a response rate of 17.54%).

Key Findings

First, the research demonstrates that effective high performance work systems used for paid staff are beneficial in managing volunteers. Managers of volunteers must keep in mind that we are talking about the key practices that make up a high performance work system, not the traditional “carrot and stick” approach.

Second, research is focused on interpersonal and motivational strategies for working with volunteers and is designed for retention and satisfaction of the volunteer and does not necessarily improve performance. The distinction being made in this research is that high performance work systems actually improve volunteer performance in the area of delivering skilled services. In order to deliver skilled services, volunteers need to work according to specific job requirements, which leaves less room for volunteer negligence.

Third, the research indicates that there are some very specific practices that nonprofit organizations can apply to improve their volunteer effectiveness. Because there are limitations and constraints within any organization’s ability to adopt new systems and behaviors we will discuss these six practices in light of some of the limitations often encountered by nonprofits.

Selective Recruitment

Many nonprofit organizations do not have the luxury of having a pool of applicants to recruit from. If your choices for volunteers are limited then you should work harder to orient volunteers to the mission, values and beliefs of the organization during the selection process. This will assist volunteers in functioning in ways that are consistent with the organization’s goals.

Extensive Training

Training is essential if volunteers are going to carry out their responsibilities properly. Training sessions should explain performance expectations, build skills, and teach problem solving techniques. Furthermore, managers and staff should be trained in how to work with volunteers. However, training can be expensive and availability of trainers is often limited. But with limited expense alternative solutions exist such as training through job shadowing or finding a qualified volunteer whose role is to provide training for other volunteers.


In this study recognition of volunteers was not shown to be a driver of volunteer effectiveness. While this research is not able to determine the reasons for this, it may be due to the idea that volunteers often have a high affinity with the organizations they give their time to. Thus, while recognition is likely valued and appreciated, it may not necessarily be a factor responsible for improving volunteer performance. Further research is needed to shed light on this. However, it would be wrong to suggest that recognizing and appreciating volunteers holds little value.

Measurement of Volunteer Performance

Measuring performance factors was directly correlated with high volunteer performance. Measuring insures that important factors for success are under observation and evaluation. If the items being measured are showing signs of concern then managers can address them before performance begins to suffer in a severe manner. Having meaningful measurements also creates an expectation within the volunteer that their work is significant to the organization and important enough to be evaluated.


Volunteers are considered “involved” when they are encouraged to be part of decision making, are treated like full members, receive information about the organization, and are involved in their own job design. Whereas volunteers expect to be treated differently and also have a greater freedom than paid workers, letting them contribute to how their work is carried out, treating them like members of the organization and sharing information freely with them will improve performance. Volunteers tend to be more effective when they feel that their contribution is as valued as paid staff.

Transformational Leadership

Effective leadership is especially important for the organization facing the challenges of delivering services through volunteers. Choosing and implementing a high performance work system is no small task so having capable leadership is critical to seeing this accomplished effectively. Nonprofit managers should study and apply the principle of transformational leadership to assist them in their work with volunteers. Research indicates that this style of leadership can be learned so there are many benefits to the manager and the performance of the organization’s volunteers if leadership skills are improved.


Several potential limitations of this research should be noted. First, while there was a good mix of respondents from the various nonprofit sectors, with only 196 respondents there is the potential that this research is not representative of effective volunteer management. More research with a larger data collection is needed to confirm the results.

Second, there was no actual measurement of organizations to determine organizational effectiveness. We simply asked respondents to rate their organization’s effectiveness based on their perceptions. This could mean that respondents were inaccurate in their assessments. However, we are reasonably satisfied with the respondents’ ratings since research indicates that subjective measures of company performance are useful and reliable indicators (Wall, Michie, Patterson, Wood, Sheehan, Clegg and West, 2004).

IV Conclusion

Overall, nonprofit organizations have indicated through the survey results that their use of high performance practices with volunteers does improve the performance of the organization. Research indicates that these practices used in isolation will likely produce little improvement but where they are applied in an interrelated fashion they are more likely to improve worker performance. This is most likely the case when applied to the volunteer environment as well.

It no longer makes sense for managers of volunteers to avoid professional management practices. The research shows that these practices produce positive results. High performance work systems are much more appropriate to the nonprofit environment where the focus is on high-commitment to the organization and its goals, and on high-involvement through shared information and decision-making.

The continued decrease in financial resources, shifting of social responsibilities from government to the nonprofit sector, and difficulties in attracting volunteers has pushed nonprofits to become more competitive and adopt more effective and efficient management practices. If nonprofits are going to thrive in this new environment, and as they depend largely on volunteers to deliver their services and attain organizational objectives, they must find methods that will effectively improve the performance of their volunteers.

As nonprofits pursue better management practices they should ultimately be encouraged to maintain their basic orientations towards cooperation and compassion, altruism, philanthropy, and volunteerism and not lose sight of their “raison d’être.” While Bush advises nonprofits not to give up their soul in the search for better management practices (Bush 1992), the good news is, they don’t have to.

V References

Adams, Carey H., & Shepherd, Gregory J. (1996). Managing volunteer performance: Face support and situational features as predictors of volunteers' evaluations of regulative messages. Management Communication Quarterly, 9, 363-389.

Bush, Richard. (1992). Survival of the nonprofit spirit in a for-profit world. Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, 21, 391-410.

Pfeffer, Jeffrey. (1995). Producing sustainable competitive advantage through the effective management of people. The Academy of Management Executive, 9, 55-72.

Wall, Toby D., Michie, Jonathan., Patterson, Malcolm., Wood, Stephen J., Sheehan, Maura., Clegg, Chris W., West, Michael. (2004). On the validity of subjective measures of company performance. Personnel Psychology, 57, 95-118.

Zacharatos, Anthea., Barling, Julian & Iverson, Roderick D. (2005). High-performance work systems and occupational safety. Journal of Applied Psychology, 90, 77-93.