Commons Governance & Volunteer Engagement Strategies

Commons-Level Governance for Volunteer Engagement

The initial thinking about the commons put it in pessimistic terms – the Tragedy of the Commons. The tragedy is this: when members of the commons are left to their own devices, they pursue their own interests to the detriment of the whole (Ostrom, 1990). As a result, some scholars suggest that an outside entity needs to regulate the community resource to prevent overuse by individuals. However, Elinor Ostrom found many cases where commons members had successfully self-organized to manage and sustain their resources, thereby signifying that commons governance could come from within a group.

Governance can take a variety of forms. As I think about applying commons principles to volunteerism, I keep coming back to stewardship. Stewardship evokes a sense of respect and gratitude for a resource. It moves beyond coordination or management into a more reciprocal relationship. For example, stewardship in an all-volunteer organization might look like honoring and celebrating the work of its members to achieve shared goals. In an organization with staff, stewardship shows up in staff-volunteer partnerships that make the most of their unique forms of contribution.

A stewardship mindset shifts our relationship with volunteers and the volunteer function. It elevates a group’s work from a list of technical matters and relationship maintenance to a pathway toward deeper and collective meaning making, connection, and compassion. It amplifies volunteerism’s usual micro-focus on one volunteer or one organization to a macro-focus that builds the broader community. Stewardship is a good match for work in the commons, particularly for volunteerism.

The On the Commons strategy center would likely agree.  They have coined the term “commons animateur” to describe a person who can support a community in seeing beyond the current state to the possibilities of the future. Animateurs enable “people and communities to recognize, value, claim, and care for their commons” (On the Commons, 2012).

Stewarding the Volunteer Commons

Each community will benefit from volunteer stewards or commons animateurs that can meet its unique needs. The following list begins to offer a vision of what a Volunteer Commons Animateur role might entail:

  • Developing entry points and pathways for service within organizations for volunteers of all backgrounds and stages
  • Linking, leveraging, and amplifying programs that support meaningful volunteer engagement and improve the community’s capacity for it
  • Promoting awareness of volunteerism resources
  • Interpreting volunteerism trends
  • Convening stakeowners to discuss and develop volunteerism
  • Serving as a service advocate and ambassador
  • Scanning the environment for opportunities to streamline or deepen resources for service
  • Facilitating conversations and work groups around an integrated community/commons plan for service
  • Reframing language and context to better align with practice
  • Honoring the diversity of volunteers and volunteer host organizations by moving beyond one-size-fits-all strategies
  • Conducting or sharing high-quality research that informs the community’s work
  • Intentionally cultivating volunteers throughout the entire community

Brudney and Meijs (2009) suggest a number of entities could fulfill a role of volunteerism governance such as volunteer centers, educational institutions, local governments, and other community intermediaries. Indeed, many of them already do. A number of especially visionary entities even fill the more aspirational roles of volunteerism steward or commons animateur.  We have an opportunity to live into these roles in more places by explicitly creating and communicating a vision of our communities as volunteer commons. This website can help capture and share this work.


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.

Ostrom, E. (1990). Governing the commons. Cambridge University Press.

Viederman, S. (2015, August 18). 1 + 1 = 10: Community governance for democracy. Nonprofit Quarterly. Retrieved from

On the Commons (2012, May 8). The role of commons animateurs: Illuminating new possibilities and solutions. Retrieved from