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Reckoning with the Shadow Side of Volunteerism

Sue Carter Kahl of Volunteer Commons shares more about the Adaptive Leadership Model

This article originally appeared on and is featured here in partnership with the Minnesota Alliance for Volunteer Advancement.

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Written by Sue Carter Kahl, Nonprofit Consultant 

Writing a position description that is inviting. Designing a successful group volunteer project. Facilitating training that equips volunteers for the tasks ahead. We’re good at addressing these technical challenges of volunteerism. They have differing levels of complexity but are all able to be solved by leaders with relevant expertise.

It gets a bit trickier when we turn our attention to the adaptive challenges related to volunteerism. How do we mitigate the savior complex that can show up in volunteering? How do we engage volunteers as meaningful partners with paid staff who see them as a nuisance? How do we push back on volunteer groups that are in it for the photo op rather than the community?

These adaptive challenges do not have clear solutions. We can’t rely on the expertise of the Volunteer Director or even the authority of the Executive Director to “fix” them. More often than not, adaptive solutions have to be co-created by a team. As a result, they require a different kind of leadership. 

We need adaptive leadership skills to complement our technical expertise

Many agencies are ripe for this kind of leadership, particularly when it comes to volunteer engagement. There is a growing awareness that volunteerism is not the inherently good activity it is often assumed to be. It can, in fact, cause harm when implemented poorly. Yet, many of us in the volunteer space have avoided digging into the shadow elements of volunteerism for fear that it will work against us. We worry that it will diminish our efforts to promote service. 

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Adaptive Leadership in Action

Adaptive leadership principles can help us acknowledge the full story about volunteerism and move into a healthier relationship with its shadow and its light. Adaptive leaders:

  • identify the challenges that volunteerism faces within an agency and distinguish between technical and adaptive issues,

  • acknowledge the gaps between what we say and do,

  • manage the tension that arises when discussing how we come up short of our values,

  • engage the people who are influenced by the issue to be part of problem solving, 

  • maintain focus on key issues, and

  • elevate voices that lack formal authority. 

Adaptive leadership isn’t about having all the answers. Instead, it’s asking the right questions and creating space for a group to find their own answers. 

In my session (Reckoning with the Shadow Side of Volunteerism) at MAVA’s 2022 Hybrid Volunteer Engagement Leadership Conference, I applied these adaptive leadership principles to volunteer scenarios. Join us to discuss adaptive leadership strategies for volunteer engagement. Can’t wait until next month? Check out this blog post to explore volunteer demographics with an adaptive lens. 

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