Volunteer Engagement in your Double-Loop Organization

Lamp lighters at Burning Man. Burning Man requires 2000 volunteers (Chen 2009)—almost all of whom also buy tickets and pay their own expenses—to run Black Rock City.Photo by Trey Ratcliff. CC licensed. http://www.stuckincustoms.com/

Volunteer Engagement in your Double-Loop Organization

How does double-loop governance help engage volunteers? What is different about the “culture” of a double-loop organization, how does this difference matter to volunteers?


Community-led virtual organizations work every day to engage volunteers and develop leadership from the member community.  There is no governance solution that can put this process on autopilot. The loss of commitment by volunteers was reported in more than seventy-seven percent of narratives about the failure of non-profit organizations (Duckles, Hager, and Galaskiewicz, 2005, p. 190). To use a nautical metaphor, we can say that member investment in the values and the vision of the organization is like a tail wind, and double-loop governance is a spinnaker that catches this. Extending this metaphor, the staff still needs to keep rowing, and someone needs to hold the rudder. But a lot of valuable velocity is acquired by capturing member investment.

Malone, Laubacher, and Dellarocas (2009) describe three elemental motivations for participation in an organization: money, love, and glory. In virtual organizations that rely on volunteer experts, the “money” motivation is specifically unavailable. In fact these experts often have full-time work elsewhere. Love and glory are the two remaining sources of the motivation for investment by members.

Above, we noted that double-loop organizations base their governance on values that are owned, shared, and celebrated by its members. While members may not totally love these values, the fact that they own them and cherish them, celebrate them regularly, and modify them with care is as close to love as any organization can accomplish.  By supporting meritocracy, the double-loop organization opens an arena for glory. How effectively this arena is articulated will impact the success of the organization. Leadership needs to be cultivated, captured, and recognized. Much of the work of a large double-loop organization may be done in self-organizing subgroups, and so some transparent process to recognize this work needs to become an integral aspect of how the larger organization, and the entire membership community, measures value.

Single-loop organizations also attempt to capitalize on love and glory. Reputation systems and “communities of practice” can be added to any organization. Social media savvy online stores such as Amazon and eBay have built strong reputation systems for sellers and reviewers. Premier reviewers can see their reviews show up at the top of lists. Airline and hotel companies build “loyalty” (a substitute for “love”) by offering rewards for repeat purchases. But for volunteer-based organizations, these interactions fail to produce the level of member investment that a double-loop organization can provide.  That investment is time and talent they give to your collective goals. It is a resource that most budgets cannot buy. Double-loop governance gives your member community good reasons to trust the efforts of your staff, to contribute to governance tasks, and to care for your vision and your values.


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