Volunteerism & the Commons

One of my favorite articles applies the concept of the commons to volunteerism. The commons consists of resources that:

  • a community shares an equal interest in, such as a pasture, the fish in a local lake, or clean air, and
  • where one person’s (or stakeholder’s) use subtracts from another’s (Poteete, Janssen, & Ostrom, 2010).

Brudney and Meijs (2009) suggest that volunteers are a natural resource whose time and talent belong to the community and organizations that need volunteer support are the stakeholders.

Adopting a commons mindset can lead us to a more expansive view of volunteerism: it shifts the focus from the short-term needs of one organization to a longer-term emphasis on all volunteers, volunteer prospects, and host organizations in a community. It re-envisions volunteer labor as something that can be depleted and exhausted when poorly managed or exploited (Brudney & Meijs, 2009). On the other hand, volunteer energy also can be cultivated and sustained through intentional and thoughtful intervention. The table below shows how Brudney and Meijs contrasted traditional volunteer practices with the commons-based approach that they call Regenerative Volunteer Engagement.

Dimension Traditional Instrumental Volunteer Management Regenerative Volunteer Engagement
Nexus Organization-centered Community-centered
Parties involved Host organization & its current volunteers, clients, funders, supporters All parties to volunteer involvement, including community of users, volunteers, clients, funders, & supporters
Effectiveness Impact on current organizational needs Impact on current organizational needs & possible impact on future needs
Resource Instrumental Recyclable/growable
Valuation Replacement value Life-time value
Time horizon/perspective Single/current assignment or event (short-term) Long-term interaction
Offer of volunteer work Job description Combo of availability, assets, & assignments
Image The fit The negotiation
Emphasis Organization accomplishments Organization & volunteer accomplishments

Framing volunteer energy as a natural resource offers a rich alternative for how we traditionally  think about (and treat) volunteers.

  • It expands service from an organization-centric episode that tallies hours as an indicator of value to a community-based experience that can potentially achieve the goals of the organization and the volunteer.
  • It moves the volunteer from a stakeholder who shows up to a do a job that someone else designed and delegated into a stakeowner who takes responsibility for being part of a community solution (Viederman, 2015).
  • It potentially shifts volunteer service from an isolated incident into a pattern of engagement that is fundamental to the practice of democracy.

To realize this expanded vision for volunteerism requires a different way of working.  Brudney and Meijs (2009) suggest two directions to guide this work:

  1. determining an appropriate commons-level governance system for sustaining and renewing volunteer energy and
  2. identifying adaptive strategies for engaging volunteers that are suitable for the diversity of the nonprofit and government sectors.

Keep reading for more on commons-level governance strategies.


Brudney, J.L., & Meijs, L.C.P.M. (2009). It ain’t natural: Toward a new (natural) resource conceptualization for volunteer management. Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, 38(4), 564-581. [This article can be accessed by creating a free account with Academia.edu.]

Poteete, A.R., Janssen, M.A., & Ostrom, E. (2010). Working together: Collective action, the commons, and multiple methods in practice. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Viederman, S. (2015, August 18). 1 + 1 = 10: Community governance for democracy. Nonprofit Quarterly. Retrieved from https://nonprofitquarterly.org/2015/08/18/1-1-10-community-governance-for-democracy/

Comments are closed.