Reckoning with the Shadow Side of Volunteerism

By Zach Rowlandson on Unsplash

When I started out as the executive of a volunteer center, I thought volunteerism was a win-win-win for everyone involved. It seemed to offer benefits to volunteers, agency hosts, corporate partners, and the community at large.


Not entirely.

The view up close revealed a more complex picture. In fact, I discovered a shadow side of service we don’t talk about much publicly.  

  • The volunteer who is rude to the people he is serving lunch. The volunteers who post selfies with “needy” people.
  • The program staff who grumble about how much time volunteers take. The same ones whose poor interactions with volunteers contribute to the low retention they complain about.
  • The corporate group that is eager to send dozens of people for a half day of service—and then backs out the week before.

And that was just the more visible shadow.

These days, many agency leaders are also reckoning with how to engage volunteers and the community as meaningful partners when they are only structured for paid staff to make decisions. They want to know how to mitigate the savior complex that can show up in volunteering. And how their own images, language, and practices have contributed to it. They want to know how to facilitate thoughtful conversations about why there is such a need for volunteering.

They wonder how to bring up these issues amidst pressure for volunteerism to be frictionless, easy, convenient, and fun. How do we reckon with the reality that community building also takes time, commitment, trust, and hard work?

Technical versus Adaptive Challenges

The first step is admitting we have a problem. As James Baldwin observed, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

One way to face our volunteerism shadows is to draw on lessons from adaptive leadership. Adaptive leadership makes a distinction between technical and adaptive challenges. Technical issues in volunteering include tasks such as writing an appealing position description or facilitating a training that equips volunteers for their roles. These challenges have differing levels of complexity but can be defined and solved by leaders with relevant expertise.

It gets a bit trickier when we turn our attention to the adaptive challenges related to volunteerism such as the ones mentioned above. 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. Adaptive solutions must 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.

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. Leaders who draw on these principles:

  • get on the balcony to get a sense of the big picture
  • distinguish between technical and adaptive issues,
  • identify the gaps between our values and practices,
  • engage the people who are part of the issue in problem solving,
  • manage the tension that arises from change and maintain the focus on key issues, and
  • elevate voices that lack formal authority.

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

Adaptive Leadership in Volunteer Engagement

Let’s walk through a few of the principles of adaptive leadership and apply them to an example courtesy of Terri Loso at HOPE worldwide. (For those interested in a deeper dive into the concepts, check out Leadership without Easy Answers by Ron Heifetz1.)

Get on the Balcony

For many of us, work life is busy and often hectic. Like dancers in a full ballroom, it is easy to get caught up in whatever is immediately in front of and around us. Adaptive leadership calls us to leave the dance floor periodically and get on the balcony. Doing so gives us a sense of the big picture and insight into where and how we fit into that big picture.  

For HOPE worldwide (HOPEww), getting on the balcony meant taking a look at their annual holiday gift-giving event. Most HOPEww chapters collect toys that they then wrap and distribute at an event for families before Christmas. These volunteer-led events include families who may or may not know each other. Gifts come from Santa, which may or may not align with the families’ own holiday traditions. HOPEww came to realize that these events can leave parents feeling less-than and reinforce a message to children that “the good stuff comes from rich people out there and it’s free”2 . This insight prompted a desire to change.

Distinguish between Adaptive and Technical Aspects of the Work

Getting on the balcony helps us get new perspective on our work. It provides context to determine which elements are technical and which are adaptive. So much of volunteer engagement appears to be technical or logistical issues that we don’t consider if or what the adaptive elements are. Yet, making a distinction between the technical and adaptive is critical because the responses differ for each.

HOPEww had refined the technical aspects of Christmas gift parties over the years. The volunteers were skilled at soliciting gifts, identifying family recipients, and coordinating event logistics. The kids receiving gifts and the volunteers working the event all seemed happy.

Learning about a holiday gift program that FCS of Atlanta ran gave the Volunteer Team at the National Office pause though. FCS collects and offers gifts in community “stores”. Parents select and purchase presents for their kids at affordable prices. They then give them at a time that fits with their family or faith tradition.

This alternate approach seemed like a better fit for HOPEww. It raised the question of what the gift event’s purpose really was. Was it about making volunteers feel good and raising the agency’s profile? Or was it to meet community needs in a dignified way? What kind of program (if any) would align with HOPEww values and community needs? These questions reflected the adaptive aspects of the issue.

That said, Terri couldn’t unilaterally mandate a change to 120 chapters and 30 HOPEww Scouts Troops nor run the program with her three-person team. She would need to engage the broader HOPEww community in navigating that path, another clue that this was an adaptive issue.

Identify the Gaps between What We Say and Do

An important task of adaptive leadership is to identify where our values and practices are not in sync. It can be difficult to admit we aren’t practicing our values. However, that knowledge can compel us to act and make change.

Encouraging volunteer leaders across the country to change an event that looks successful and feels good (to them) is a tall task. Yet, the current iteration of the event didn’t reflect HOPEww’s purpose to transform the world through love, respect, and partnership. If even some of the parents felt shame…if even some of the kids got the wrong message from the event…if even some family traditions were co-opted by gifts given by Santa or strangers, then it was worth re-considering how HOPEww moved forward.

Give the Work Back to the People

Adaptive leadership involves doing “with” rather than “to” people, which is especially relevant for nonprofit and government agencies. Many of us have a mission that cannot be solved by expertise or money alone. It requires the active engagement of those who are impacted by the mission. This principle honors the reality that there is rarely a lone leader who can ride in to save the day. It shifts the role of leaders from doers or fixers to facilitators. It makes problem solving a team effort.

HOPEww is giving the work back to the people through their Respect and Relationships Workshop and discussions of Toxic Charity2. The interactive workshops promote respectful, relational, strength-based, and community-based local service. They highlight doing “with” rather than “for” the community. The book discussions provide insight into the shadow side of holiday events and introduce other approaches. These efforts helped inspire a shift from traditional toy drives to the Community Christmas Stores. Instead of telling volunteer leaders to change, the national staff invited them into conversations and gave them tools and space to wrestle with the issue of agency values, community needs, and current programs. In doing so, the local volunteers could see the opportunity and need for change.

Manage Tension and Maintain Focus

One of the aspects of adaptive leadership that I appreciate most is that it acknowledges that this kind of change is difficult and often produces tension. Rather than shying away from the tension, it calls on us to use and manage it. We don’t want so much discomfort that people disengage but we need enough to maintain focus and energy on the topic at hand. Tension helps us do the hard work needed to improve.

Change isn’t happening overnight for HOPEww. To date, several chapters have changed their holiday programming though many others haven’t yet. The pace of change can feel slow and overwhelming. Terri and her team have adopted a posture of “gentle pressure, persistently applied” to maintain focus on aligning values and action. She uses the tension and cognitive dissonance that come from misaligned values and actions to ask what could be done differently. Using—rather than diffusing—tension is uncomfortable sometimes, but it is in service to a goal and values that are bigger than Terri and her team.

Elevate Voices that Lack Authority

The final principle is elevating voices that lack authority. The opinions of funders and regulatory agencies, agency leadership, or even best practices carry a lot of authority. Unfortunately, these perspectives can obscure those of the community we serve or their loved ones. Adaptive leadership calls on us to ensure the perspectives of those closest to the mission are being heard and honored.

HOPEww helps re-center the voices of those they serve by sharing stories about holiday toy distributions that were harmful. The stories amplify the interests of the community being served. It reminds volunteers that their desires are one part of the program but not the most important part.

Terri and her team also use their national position to elevate the voices of volunteers in chapters that have changed their holiday programming. These volunteers, in turn, have shared about the more generous feel of the event while amplifying the positive feedback they received from families. It provides encouragement to the chapter leaders who are embarking on a new path.

Terri will be the first to say that HOPE worldwide has more changes to make. But she and the HOPEww team aren’t shying away from them. Her experience demonstrates how adaptive leadership helps us shine a light into the shadows of volunteerism. It allows us to tell a more honest story about service: the good, the bad, and the ugly. It also liberates us to work on a better story. One where we all have a role and responsibility. Where leadership is a process rather than a title. Where we come together as community to create the community we aspire to.

With gratitude to:

  • Terri Loso and HOPE worldwide  for sharing their experience in facilitating change.
  • Dr. Terri Monroe and Dr. Zachary Green for engaging me in the principles and practices of adaptive leadership.


  1. Heifetz, R. (1998). Leadership without easy answers. Harvard University Press.
  2. Lupton, R. D. (2012). Toxic charity: How churches and charities hurt those they help (and how to reverse it). HarperOne.

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