Organizational Culture Impacts Your Volunteers
By Dan L. Gibbons

Dan Gibbons
Dan Gibbons
Organizational culture has a profound impact on your volunteer development, and needs to support your volunteer development efforts, especially since today’s increasing performance demands and shrinking resources places a greater premium on engaging volunteers to achieve the mission of nearly all nonprofits.

Organizational culture is essentially an amalgamation of shared perceptions, beliefs, values, and tacit assumptions. These are primarily derived from the organization’s original members learning to successfully solve problems for adapting to the external environment’s challenges, and successfully integrating the internal daily functions. The repeated successful solutions are deemed worthy to teach all subsequent members as “the way.” They became habituated.

Thus, organizational culture governs how people in an organization perceive, think, and make decisions. It drives behavior #147; actions and reactions. It permeates your entire organization. You ignore this “800 pound gorilla” at your own risk!

Edward H. Schein, a renowned authority, purports that organizational culture can be observed at three different levels.
  • The most visible are Artifacts, which includes observed behavior, e.g., décor, work attire, meeting behavior, etc.
  • Next are the Espoused Beliefs & Values e.g. vision, mission and value statements, goals, etc.
  • Finally, Tacit Assumptions #147; strongly held and taken for granted values, beliefs, and perceptions that operate at the unconscious level #147; that are the most difficult to discern.
The 800lb Gorilla versus Your Volunteer Resources
Let’s look at two of many possible examples:

In one example, the prevailing underlying (tacit) assumption is that paid staff members are the professionals and real experts; they only need external assistance for undertaking mundane tasks. The organization proclaims to welcome and appreciate volunteers’ talents (espoused beliefs); this message is on its website and collateral materials (artifacts). Actual behavior: volunteers are used for clean-up projects, babysitting at meetings, and occasionally transporting clients.

In another example, the prevailing underlying assumption is volunteers are integral to the organization’s performance. The organization proclaims to welcome and appreciate volunteers (espoused beliefs); this message is on its website and collateral materials (artifacts). Actual behavior: volunteer resource discussions are a routine part of planning at strategic and programmatic levels. A formal volunteer management program is in place.

The assumption in each example manifests different organizational behavior regarding how volunteers are perceived, treated, and utilized.

Determining Your Culture’s Support or Hindrance of Volunteer Efforts
Organizational culture doesn’t readily yield its hidden assumptions. The tacit assumptions of an organization’s culture operate at the subconscious level. They are not easily discerned and can take considerable time to unearth.

We can, however, look to behavior surrounding volunteers to determine whether the culture supports or hinders your volunteer resource efforts. Even though observing behavior will not necessary reveal the specific assumptions, organizational behavior is still largely driven by organizational culture. Hence, we can gain valuable insights regarding support or hindrance via probing the incongruities between what is espoused and actual behavior.

Below are three behavioral observation categories and sample questions regarding organizational culture’s support or hindrance:

1. Perception of Volunteers: (How viewed or looked upon)
  • Are the conversations about volunteers positive or derisive? Are volunteers an afterthought or prominent in conversations regarding planning, resource development, etc.?
  • Regardless of your organization’s size or budget, is there a system for managing volunteers?
2. Treatment of Volunteers: (How treated by all paid staff members)
  • Excluding board members, are volunteers welcomed and involved in professional conversations?
  • Is there social interaction between regular staff and volunteers e.g. sitting together during lunch?
3. Recruitment & Retention of Volunteers:
  • Do volunteers usually leave before their service term is over?
  • New volunteers come because your organization has been recommended by previous volunteers?
You can of course expand the categories (e.g., volunteer usage) and questions to assist you. Upon gaining insights, you next undertake discovery of the tacit assumptions that influence volunteerism in your organization #147; before attempting any changes.

To gain an in-depth understanding of how to unearth these, you may wish to consult Edgar H. Schein’s Organizational Culture and Leadership, and Paige Hull Teegarden, Denice Rothman Hinden and Paul Sturn’s The Nonprofit Organizational Culture Guide.

Dan Gibbons is an organizational effectiveness consultant to nonprofits with more than 25 years of management experience. Call him at 508-345-4053 or email to
April 2013