Study Looks at What Drives Volunteer Leaders’ Commitment

What organizational factors make for the most committed leaders? New research suggests that more interdependent teams and less time in meetings make a big difference.

What makes one volunteer leader more committed to an organization than the next? Thanks to a new study published in the American Sociological Review last week, we may be closing in on an answer.

What we found was the very large importance of how well a leadership team works together in determining how much each individual member of that team is willing to give.

“Previous work looking at these kinds of things had focused a lot on individual characteristics of particular leaders,” said Matthew Baggetta, a professor at Indiana University’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs and a coauthor of “Leading Associations: How Individual Characteristics and Team Dynamics Generate Committed Leaders.”

“What we did in this study was say, ‘OK, those are probably important, so we’ll take those into consideration, but let’s look at some organization-level factors.’ And what we found was the very large importance of how well a leadership team works together in determining how much each individual member of that team is willing to give.”

Baggetta, along with Hahrie Han of Wellesley College and Kenneth T. Andrews of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, used data collected from over 1,600 Sierra Club volunteer leaders across 368 chapters to try to determine what elements of their work affected their level of commitment to the group.

The study, which received an award for scholarly research on associations from the ASAE Foundation and the North Carolina State University Institute for Nonprofits, made three key findings:

  • Interdependent leadership teams—where the success of the group is dependent on the collective efforts of team members—tended to be more committed and give more time to the organization.
  • Teams where time commitment was evenly dispersed were more committed. “If you had a situation where one person was giving 200 hours a month and another was giving two hours a month, that team as a whole would actually give less time than a team where everybody was giving maybe 15 hours a month,” said Baggetta.
  • More time in meetings meant less committed volunteer leaders. “If a team spent substantial proportions of their collective time in meetings, generally speaking, individual members of that team would give less time overall.”

To the last point, Baggetta said the message isn’t that volunteer leaders should stop meeting.

“For the kinds of things that these organizations are doing, they clearly need to meet,” he said. “The real take-home message is to try to meet better.”

In talking to volunteer leaders from the Sierra Club, Baggetta said, researchers found that a substantial amount of time in a most meetings was spent on leaders giving reports on individual projects, followed by “poorly structured debates about what is of value.”

“Instead, if they focused more on having everyone show up to the meeting already prepared, having read a report, they could use their time wisely and be more interdependent,” he said. “Spend your time together really deliberating over important issues and coming to decisions on those, and coming to some collective agreement about what it is you’re going to do and how you can best come together to do it.”

In future work, Baggetta hopes to look into the content of meetings to determine what makes an effective volunteer meeting. He also plans to explore how understanding connections between people can help an organization build the best volunteer team.


Rob Stott

By Rob Stott

Rob Stott is a contributing editor for Associations Now. MORE

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