Leadership and agility in voluntary work

Guest contribution by | 04.08.2022

What leadership, agility and volunteering have to do with each other and why this is important for a new understanding of leadership

Volunteering has continued to develop steadily across all age groups in recent years. The trend to get involved is unbroken in our society, as the analysis of the current Volunteer Survey also proves. Fortunately! Many current challenges have been mastered precisely and only through the great commitment of many volunteers. Let’s just think of the flood disaster in 2021 or the direct and rapid support of people from Ukraine who fled to Germany as a result of the war.

Volunteering is and remains an important and strong pillar of our society. Here, too, successful cooperation among each other is a decisive factor. Only through cooperation can voluntary work develop its full effect. Leadership is an important issue here because leadership actively shapes relationships. Using new ways of working together, such as agile formats and methods, and also making active use of new communication channels are essential and important success factors in today’s world.

Some facts about voluntary work

According to the results of the surveys on voluntary engagement (Volunteer Survey, Engagement Report of the BMFSF, Generali Engagement Atlas¹), 39.7 % of Germans aged 14 and over volunteer for society. This corresponds to approximately 28.8 million people.

A person is counted as “voluntarily engaged” if he or she “states in the survey that he or she performs voluntary or honorary work or tasks outside of work and family”.

Compared to the last survey in 2019, the level of engagement has remained essentially stable. Compared to engagement in 1999 – when around 21.6 million people were engaged – the desire to engage has risen sharply over the last twenty years.

Despite the medium-term growth in commitment, it can be observed that the assumption of leadership or management functions in voluntary work is declining: “According to this, the proportion of those committed with leadership and board functions fell by a good ten percentage points from 38.2% in 1999 to 27.5% in 2014”. And the current Volunteer Survey 2019 also states: “Volunteers are proportionally less and less likely to hold managerial positions in a time comparison. For men, the relative decline between 1999 and 2019 is greater than for women.”

It is becoming increasingly difficult for organisations to fill these positions. In addition to the challenges of demographic change and the effects of digitalisation, there is another “brake” on the motivation of volunteers to want to take on responsible leadership roles – in the longer term.

Does this sound familiar? Yes, that’s right – it’s a very similar discussion to the one we have in business enterprises. And that is exactly the core of the matter. It’s no longer about “money” and 2careers”. What is it about then? In voluntary work, we want to create meaning, help and support, but above all we want to fulfil our own needs and do something that suits us. Just like in a “normal” job, organisations have to ask themselves the question: What is a sustainable and future-proof motivation for leadership?

Motivation – commitment – emotion

Motive fulfilment is the decisive factor for high-performance voluntary engagement. Satisfying motives gives rise to positive emotions such as joy, fun, enthusiasm, feelings of belonging, well-being or gratitude. These positive emotions lead people to get involved, apply themselves and give their best.

The emergence of positive feelings is the quid pro quo for one’s commitment: it is the desired and expected “reward”. The positive feelings drive one to perform.

In order to be able to fulfil motives, they must be known and conscious. This is true for the potentially engaged person himself as well as for people who lead him in the respective form of organisation.

So the crucial question is: What are the most important personal needs in volunteering and how can they be fulfilled?

Essential motives for volunteering and contributing time and quality of life are:

  • appreciation,
  • personal relationships,
  • social justice,
  • organising,
  • caring,
  • prestige,
  • influence,
  • knowledge building,
  • competition.

All motives are to be understood absolutely value-free! There are no “good” or “bad” drivers in this context. They all serve to set impulses for (voluntary) performance.

However, very few people act on the basis of only one motive. There are individually stronger and weaker forms of motives. And it is also the interplay of several motives that ultimately shapes our needs and actions. Just as different motives “work” in each individual, so do the different motivations of everyone in a voluntary organisation. They are different motives that work together, but they can also work against each other to some extent. How do you create social justice when a sports club is about competition? How do I deal with a domineering club president who manages economic matters quite well but regularly creates a bad atmosphere in board meetings? And personal relationships take on an even greater role when behind every second sentence is said or thought: “I do that in my spare time.”

The autocratic boss is frowned upon in the New Work business world (though far from abolished) – in an association it is often common for one to have the say and many to run with it.

While emotions have no place in the corporate world, voluntary work cannot function without them, because they are precisely what motivate people to volunteer.

Leadership in voluntary work must therefore motivate people intrinsically much more than in the business world, where at least in part remuneration can still be understood as a compensation payment. If we rethink leadership and make it attractive, it can have a big impact on leadership in general. Then leadership will make sense and fun again – it creates added value!

Leadership – responsibility – organisation

Leading people is a challenging task that requires a lot of responsibility on the part of the leader. In addition to “classic” (economically influenced) leadership tasks and competencies, the specific voluntary structures present special challenges to leaders. Voluntary structures differ greatly in terms of fields of activity, organisation, size and objectives. This broad, colourful field is characterised by the encounter of very different people and their personalities, with very different abilities and backgrounds.

Voluntary work is always caught between idealistic aspirations and successful action. Leaders have to operate in this area of tension. Leadership is a service to the people being led and to the organisation. This also means facing difficult situations again and again if it serves the cause.

One of the greatest challenges in volunteer leadership is to unite apparent opposites in dealing with people.

In order to act successfully in the interest of the people and the organisation, it is necessary to approach one’s own leadership tasks with reflection and to perform leadership tasks professionally.

For volunteer leadership practice, it is helpful to know the potential difficulties, to deal with them and to be able to adjust to them.

Key challenges are:

  • a high value orientation in the organisations,
  • forming personal relationships with each other,
  • heterogeneous groups,
  • time resources,
  • leadership training.

Especially the last point needs to be rethought. Volunteering has no personnel selection processes. And that is a good thing. More than anything else, however, we need leaders who can deal with diversity, with challenging team constellations, with communication hurdles. Leadership without authority is the order of the day in voluntary work. We can train the concept of “voluntarily following” a role model right here. This does not mean, however, that leaders in voluntary work are test figures. Just like paid full-time leaders, they need support, advanced training and knowledge of innovative organisational theories.

Agility – flexibility – change

Organisations that change remain alive – and may thus not only ensure their survival, but also their attractiveness. Insofar as voluntary enterprises succeed in constantly dealing with current developments internally and externally and in adapting their organisational structure in harmony with their culture, this testifies to a high level of agility competence.

Agile organisations are absolutely future-oriented and consciously deal with uncertainties. Insofar as agility is to be lived in an organisation, the adjustment and conversion to new developments must be recognised as a holistic, ongoing process in which all employees participate. This is achieved through a special form of cooperation between functions, teams and leadership. For agility to work, everyone must actively contribute.

There is no one agile organisation. However, there are certain elements that characterise agility. These include values that provide orientation, a self-responsible attitude in cooperation, versatile leadership and continuous reflection in order to learn from experience and successfully deal with change. These are all essential elements that also characterise voluntary organisations in their cooperation.

Many factors can support an organisation in being agile and enabling agile cooperation: All structures and processes that enable people to be sensitive and reflective and to deal responsibly with uncertainties should be mentioned here. This means, for example, a commitment that is always obtained to “go along with it”. In voluntary work, this already results from the fact that each volunteer makes his/her contribution completely voluntarily and therefore his/her commitment is based on conviction. On the other hand, it also means that it is even more important for voluntary organisations to reassure themselves of this “conviction” again and again and to pick up members and volunteers accordingly. Other positive supporters of agility are cultural: an environment that enables learning, co-creation and innovation, where there is an open culture of feedback and trust, and which is primarily solution-oriented, facilitates agile behaviour.

Agile work organisations are characterised less by a hierarchical structure and more by a network structure. A network organisation is characterised by the fact that its members act autonomously as far as possible and are linked to each other in the long term by common goals. Through this, they work together in a coordinated manner. A network organisation is intended to facilitate stable, cooperative and complex relationships between the partners involved. At the same time, network organisations enable a continuous simplified exchange with each other. Knowledge can be shared more quickly here and a systematic design can be focused on. Thus, many network participants can obtain or receive uniform information and knowledge in a timely manner.

In order for an agile organisational design to unfold its full effectiveness, agile formats and methods are recommended in cooperation.

The management of a future-proof organisation is therefore subject to a cycle of planning, development and implementation stages.

We can assume that our future is increasingly determined by technology. And we can also assume that we will and must change more and more rapidly in the future as a result of this progress. Just as in our private environment, our professional environment is also changing due to digitalisation and technological progression: new business and service models are emerging, traditional models are dissolving and disappearing from the market, and a wide variety of sectors are growing together and networking. Services for which resources or employees would have to be kept available are changing to the extent that products are offered via an (internet) platform and these are provided with logistics. The idea of networking is always in the foreground and brings product or service together with logistics. This has an increasing influence on activities, cooperation and culture. Technological progress or, more comprehensively, digitalisation does not stop in the world of work, but affects our entire society and our coexistence to the same extent. This means that volunteering, as an essential part of our society, is also touched and affected.


Leaders in voluntary work (still) have to deal with their own qualifications on leadership and take care of a standard themselves. They stumble into leadership roles where they are confronted with highly complex issues. They are actually always dealing with the most important resource: people. That is why leadership in voluntary work should in very many cases be done collaboratively as a network in a team.

Overall, leadership should be established as a standard topic in voluntary work. This requires the cooperation of as many leaders of an organisation as possible. Voluntary structures are often a reflection of social structures – much more so than our clustered professional world.

In volunteer leadership, we have to live with contradictions and contrasts. Leaders must recognise this area of tension and find a balance. The central challenge here is not so much solving problems as shaping cooperation in finding solutions.

Leadership is the means that creates good and powerful relationships.


Hinweise (links in German):

[1] Volunteer Survey 2014 and 2019 sowie Third Engagement Report: Future Civil Society. Young Engagement in the Digital Age (2020)

In spring 2023, the 4th edition of “Erfolgreich führen im Ehrenamt”. Hier finden Sie die 3. Auflage des Praxisbuches.

The 4th edition is expanded by:

  • Updating and expanding agility in volunteering – as a new form of collaboration (formats + methods) and shaping organisations (from association to network).
  • Inclusion of the pandemic and how digitalisation can strengthen volunteering.
  • Expansion to include aspects of leadership skills through digitalisation and agility in voluntary work.

In addition, there are many concrete examples, case studies and experience reports.

Erfolgreich führen im Ehrenamt

Further information on the topic including workshops and lectures can also be found on Britta Redmann’s German website.

If you like the post or want to discuss it, feel free to share it with your network.

Britta Redmann has published three other articles in the t2informatik Blog:

t2informatik Blog: Parental leave - laws, feelings, chances of winning

Parental leave – laws, feelings, chances of winning

t2informatik Blog: Home-Office-School Balance - is it possible?

Home-Office-School Balance – is it possible?

t2informatik Blog: Water lilies in change processes

Water lilies in change processes

Britta Redmann

Britta Redmann

Britta Redmann is an independent lawyer, mediator and coach and is responsible for HR & Corporate Development at a software manufacturer. She is the author of various specialist books. As a human resources manager, she has accompanied, managed and implemented organisational developments in various industries. Her special expertise lies in the development of organizations up to agile and networked forms of cooperation. She transforms and implements modern concepts such as agility, work 4.0 and digitalisation in terms of labour law.