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Volunteers: Camouflaged Leadership

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Marvin Pichla
October 18, 2016

The role of volunteers in public service delivery has a long and satisfying history. Whether the tasks are helping distribute meals to those who have transportation challenges or serving on a regional development council that is trying to reinvigorate a struggling community, public service volunteers regularly step up and answer the call. The need for volunteers today is possibly greater than ever before.

With public dollars becoming more impact targeted and fiscal “belt-tightening” occurring at all government levels, unpaid support has become operationally critical. Because of its critical nature, it is necessary to better understand the full influence of public service volunteerism. Interestingly, has anyone ever analyzed the role and creative contributions made by these diverse public volunteers? Is it possible that in almost every situation the argument could be made that these special volunteers offer “camouflaged leadership” to the causes they serve?

Let’s do our own analysis.

First, let’s consider time spent and the role of public service volunteers in relation to assistance programs for eligible client-customers. Because volunteers are not typically responsible for data collection and recordkeeping, they are able to spend more quality time with the person in need. As a result, the volunteer may be able to more accurately identify the challenges a veteran may have getting a job or a single mom on public assistance attempting to find time to earn a GED diploma. Additionally, because the volunteer is not held “programmatically-hostage” by the rules, policies and performance expectations of regular staff, the volunteer may be able to exercise a more open and direct leadership role in either situation. Although quietly camouflaged behind the title of volunteer, the after-hours sessions that are specially designed to offer greater convenience for the client-customer typically allow the volunteer to assist in greater ways and thus the deeper quality definition of leadership comes through.

Second, volunteers are able to exercise leadership by not having to recognize organizational and/or regulatory limitations. Take the example of a teenager who is disabled but wants to learn to drive. Rehabilitation service organizations are able to assist the young adult only in so many ways. But what if a volunteer board member was a car dealer and wanted to donate a vehicle? And what if a fellow board member, who was an auto insurance agent, wanted to contribute by customizing the vehicle to overcome the teenager’s limitations? Finally, what if a third board member from a law enforcement agency wanted to volunteer EXTRA time and offer a nontraditional drivers education course? These actions take volunteerism to a much higher level but they are all leadership actions.

Third, and this is a very significant example of public service volunteer camouflaged leadership, the Big Brother-Big Sister organization/operation. The principle Big Brother-Big Sister agency role is to match adult volunteers with a child who is lacking a vital role model. On the surface, it could appear that the matches are made mostly for entertainment, socialization and/or family style interaction. However, the capacity for teaching leadership traits like personal responsibility, being on time, respect for people, completing assignments, asking questions, quality partnerships and just plain appropriate communication are all major learning elements of the Big Brother-Big Sister relationships. The likelihood that one or more of the leadership learnings will be retained and shared is very high. Thus, the level of camouflaged leadership occurring within these special adult-youth matches is in many ways endless.

Finally, let’s consider the camouflaged leadership possibilities in relation to public service/program innovation. In my extensive public sector career experiences, I am overwhelmingly pleased to report the very long list of volunteer innovative contributions. Whether it was offering customized literacy assistance to an industrial production worker so he could keep his job, or a business owner volunteering to teach an AG-PRINCIPLES course or the president of a major university volunteering to address a large group of specialty sector women about careers and commerce building opportunities—the leadership impact was (and is) huge!

Standardly, no one appears to consider these volunteer actions as leadership. Rather, they are thought to be “just the right thing to do.” However, the fact is that these forms of volunteer camouflaged leadership represent an immense potential to enhance traditional everyday public services.

Public service volunteers are LEADERS period! This recognition is confirmed based on the special evidence-based examples contained in this article. The camouflaged aspect of their volunteer roles and traditional labels may cause one to overlook resulting long-term contributions in their areas of service. However, the decision to volunteer for public service alone is a form of leadership and the assistance they provide in any/all areas just extend the positive impact. Therefore, if you have the OPPORTUNITY OF A LIFETIME to volunteer in an area of public service…be a leader.


Author: Marvin N. Pichla, Ph.D., is the owner and creative adviser of Inspiring Innovations, Inc. Sharing his unique entrepreneurship and innovation in public service experience, Marv consults with public and private business, education and community organizations to develop new and different problem-solving methods through real-life, example-based learning. Email: [email protected].

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

One Response to Volunteers: Camouflaged Leadership

  1. Pingback: TRIPLE III TIME: Volunteers: Camouflaged Leadership | Inspiring Innovations, Inc.

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