Wilson Center for Social Entrepreneurship

Volunteer Management Practices during Challenging Economic Times

Hillary J. Knepper PhD
Maria J. D'Agostino
Helisse Levine


Nonprofit organizations rely upon volunteers to facilitate their missions of meeting critical community needs. Since 2006, on average, 61.9 million Americans or 26.4 percent of the adult population volunteered every year through organizations delivering 8.1 billion hours of service worth approximately $162 billion to America’s communities (Bureau of Labor Statistics 2012; Corporation for National and Community Service 2010). Most recent data released by The Bureau of Labor in 2013 further suggest between September 2011 and September 2012 approximately 64.5 million people volunteered via an organization at least once. In light of high unemployment, donor fatigue, and slow economic growth, it is also anticipated that nonprofit reliance on volunteers will continue to increase (Salamon and Spence 2009). As cautioned by Doherty and Mayer (2003) when revenue sources are compromised as a result of an ailing economy, continued devolution, and severe budget cuts at all levels of government, nonprofits will increasingly be compelled to cope in new ways to achieve their missions. Therefore, as nonprofit organizations continue to face compromised revenue sources due to severe federal funding cuts and reduced donor support, managers will be compelled more than ever before to utilize their volunteers with fewer resources. However, the words of Lipsky and Smith (1989/90) and again by Brudney and Duncombe (1992) still ring true today: volunteers are not free, nor are nonprofit managers always equipped to make the most of their volunteers (Urban Institute 2004; Yanay and Yanay 2008). Furthering the findings of prior research (Levine and D’Agostino 2012), the purpose of this study is to identify the specific practices that emerge among volunteer managers in human service organizations during challenging economic times. Given that volunteer management encompasses a range of complex activities, such as recruiting, coordinating, leading, supporting, administering and organizing volunteers as well as strategic oversight and management of volunteer programs this study introduces complexity theory as a lens for understanding volunteer management capacity during challenging economic times. Although business (Curley 2012) and legal studies (Hornstein 2005) have utilized complexity as a guiding theory, the framework used in this study is a unique and important contribution to the nonprofit volunteer management literature. This study incorporates complexity theory as a means to frame a model of volunteer management that offers nonprofit chief executives, managers and funders a new perspective on how to successfully cope with volunteers and strengthen capacity during these challenging times. First, literature reviewing nonprofit and volunteer management capacity building is examined. The paper then introduces complexity theory as a basis for understanding volunteer management capacity. We then proceed with the methods section and discussion of key findings. We conclude with study limitations and areas for future research.