Volunteer Engagement Assessment: Revealing the Invisible

Iceberg with ice visible above and below the waterline
By waagefr from Pixabay

You know the organization. The volunteer manual is gorgeous. The volunteers are involved in a variety of roles. The CEO highlights achievements during Volunteer Month. They check all the boxes on how to engage volunteers.

You also know the Volunteer Director feels like she is carrying the entire volunteer effort on her shoulders. She struggles to be included in strategy sessions. Getting her peers to connect with volunteers in meaningful ways feels like pulling teeth.

What is going on? How can things look so good on paper and still feel lacking?

Defining “Good” Volunteer Engagement

One explanation for the gap between how volunteer engagement looks on paper and how it feels in real life is the way we have approached its definition. Effective volunteer engagement is often defined as a set of practices established from research, observation, and experience. These practices are codified as standards1 and codes of involvement2. To determine if an organization is doing a good job with its volunteers then, we compare its efforts to these better practices. This is a valuable starting point. These standards translate the complex work of engaging volunteers into practical actions. They support leaders in identifying the behaviors and structure needed to support volunteerism.

Assessment: Avoiding a Checklist Mentality

How we use volunteer engagement standards matters though. It can be tempting to deploy them as a checklist rather than a map. A checklist mentality leads us to audit our efforts without spending time on deeper reflection about the intent and nuance of a particular recommendation. Does this practice get us closer to our mission? Does it honor our values and community? Did we meet the spirit of the law or the letter? Does it put us in right relationship with those who are involved in the work?

Yes, there is a volunteer manual. Does it invite and excite volunteers about their role and the agency? Or is it a heavy-handed list of dos and don’ts based on past volunteer transgressions? Yes, the executive director says she “supports” volunteers. Does that mean she includes volunteerism in the strategic plan in meaningful ways and invests resources in the volunteer function? Or does it mean she thinks volunteers are nice people who care about the organization?

Treating assessment primarily as a checklist—or its cousin, the score card—omits the importance of agency context and prioritization. An organization that exclusively offers short-term volunteering opportunities for planting trees or sorting books, for example, has little need for a background check or lengthy screening process. A lower “score” on these practices might be completely appropriate. In fact, it would be a poor use of organization and volunteer time to institute new processes in this area.

As with any tool, how we implement an assessment is what’s important. Assessments, standards, and codes are most useful when combined with reflection questions that dig into the intention behind practices as well as agency context. Without this reflection, they may yield shallow insights and offer little direction for which areas most need attention. Or worse, they may point to actions that complicate life for staff, volunteers, or the community.

Assessing What Isn’t Visible

One of the other challenges of traditional assessments is that it’s difficult to capture the less visible dynamics that influence volunteer engagement. Yet, anyone overseeing volunteers will tell you that the factors we do not see absolutely shape the success of volunteerism (or lack thereof). Organizational transformation scholar Otto Scharmer3 would agree. He observes that agencies are impacted by what they do not acknowledge as well as what they do. Furthermore, a study about value proposition indicates that subjective perceptions influence our actions4. Thus, if staff think volunteers have a low value proposition or payoff and that the time needed to involve them will be high, they are less likely to engage volunteers. But how often do we discuss perceptions about volunteers, let alone include these perceptions as part of assessment?

Holistic Assessment: The All Quadrant Model

The All Quadrant Model provides a different type of assessment tool to help reveal more of the dynamics that influence organizations5. As such, it can be a useful companion to traditional assessment. The four elements of the model are:

  • Upper Left (Individual interior) – what is inside an individual: thoughts, feelings, beliefs, personal meaning, values
  • Upper Right (Individual exterior) – what can be observed about an individual: skills and talents, behaviors, activities
  • Lower Left (Group interior) – what is inside a group: worldview, cultural norms, shared values and assumptions, collective meaning making
  • Lower Right (Group exterior) – what can be observed about a group: social systems, environment, policies, procedures
From Ken Wilber, A Theory of Everything5

The All Quadrant Model reveals factors contributing to organizational behavior to present a holistic view of an agency. By considering each quadrant individually, we can bring attention to areas we might overlook otherwise. By considering the whole, we notice how the elements are dynamic and interactive.

Applying the All Quadrant Model for Volunteer Engagement Assessment

The holistic approach of the All Quadrant Model makes it a good fit for capturing more of the dynamics influencing volunteerism. Below is an adaptation of the model for volunteer engagement.

  • Upper Left (Individual interior) – thoughts, feelings, perceptions, personal meaning, and values about volunteerism
  • Upper Right (Individual exterior) – behaviors, skills, roles, and activities related to volunteerism
  • Lower Left (Group interior) – cultural norms, shared values, collective meaning making, and shared assumptions about volunteerism
  • Lower Right (Group exterior) – physical, technological, and economic structures related to volunteerism
Adapted from Ken Wilber, A Theory of Everything

The All Quadrant Model offers a fuller picture of the diverse influences on organizational behavior. Many of us (especially those in organizations with paid staff) tend to focus on the right side of the quadrant, the elements that are easier to see or influence. When an issue in staff and volunteer relations arises, for instance, we might develop training or policies to address it. Less frequently do we probe group norms about involving volunteers or consider the team’s willingness to work with volunteers in the first place. This helps explain why trainings do not always resolve agency issues. Indeed, a volunteer supervision workshop for paid staff might not lead to much change if the paid staff believe volunteers are more trouble than they are worth.

Creating Your Own All Quadrant Model for Volunteerism

You can use the All Quadrant Model to assess your organization overall or a specific program that engages volunteers. It is especially valuable to complete the exercise with a team since those closest to the volunteer function often have different beliefs, perceptions, and experiences of working with volunteers than team members in other positions. Just asking questions and creating space for honest answers can yield a wealth of information about how volunteers are perceived. It can also be liberating for teams to have permission to discuss the good, bad, and ugly of service—along with their ideas for improving it. To try out the model on your own, you can find a blank template here.

Here are a few questions to get the conversation started with your team to help populate the quadrants:

  • Rate your experience as a volunteer on a scale of 1 to 10. What number would you give it, and why? (Organize the group’s responses on a whiteboard under positive and negative headings to see what trends emerge.)
  • Rate your experience working with volunteers on a scale of 1 to 10. What number would you give it, and why?
  • How do these experiences influence your perceptions of or willingness to work with volunteers in your current role?
  • What are the unspoken beliefs about volunteers in our program or agency? How do these beliefs play out?
  • What are the visible elements of volunteerism in our program or agency? In what ways do they occupy physical space? What volunteer policies and written artifacts exist? What do these elements say about the role of volunteers?
  • How do the parts of the quadrant interact? What are the implications for the organization as a whole?

Maybe you can’t get a whole team together to complete an agency-wide All Quadrant Model. That’s ok. It can be valuable to talk through it informally with a program director or a peer at another organization. You can even gain insights by completing it on your own. What patterns emerge? How might you use this new data to inform your volunteer engagement efforts?

Zooming Out: The Big Picture

Another use of the quadrant is for thinking about the dynamics of your organization in broader terms. For example, organizations with paid staff for engaging volunteers tend to emphasize the right side of the quadrant for making change. Grassroots and all-volunteer organizations often tap into the shared but undocumented values and norms of the left side. The following questions can identify patterns in strategy and change management.

  • What level of awareness exists about each quadrant’s influence in your organization?
  • Does your organization default to a particular quadrant when considering making changes? If so, which one(s)? Are any quadrants underrepresented? What are the implications?
  • Does the model offer any new insights into volunteer engagement at your organization? If so, what?
  • How does this model complement other forms of assessment you use?
From Practice to Culture

Ultimately, good volunteer engagement is not just a set of practices. It is also an agency’s culture and volunteer ethos. The All Quadrant Model offers a companion assessment tool to help diagnose the culture by revealing less visible factors that influence volunteerism. It expands our awareness from what we see and do about volunteerism to what we value and believe.

With gratitude to Dr. Terry Monroe for introducing me to the All Quadrant Model and Dr. Zachary Green for the assignment that provided the spark to apply it to volunteerism.


1 Investing in Volunteers. (2021). Investing in volunteers standard.
2 Volunteer Canada. (2017). Canadian Code for volunteer involvement.
3 Scharmer, C. O. (2016). Theory u. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.
4 Zeithaml, V. A. (1988). Consumer perceptions of price, quality, and value: A means-end model and synthesis of evidence. Journal of Marketing, 52(3), 2-22.
5 Wilber, K. (2001). A theory of everything: An integral vision for business, politics, science, and spirituality. Boston, MA: Shambhala.

Note: This blog post started out as a web page at Volunteer Commons. It included versions of the model for volunteers and the volunteer field.

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