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Explaining Volunteer Behaviors Through Gender

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

By Khaldoun AbouAssi and Jake Gandolfi
November 1, 2021

Membership organizations play a significant role in the United States, both in serving their members and shaping public policy. Toward that end, these orgnizations need to involve their members—to the benefit of the organization and society at large. Member involvement in these associations can increase organization efficacy and motivate members to actively support the organization’s missions and programs, resulting in improved organizational accountability, legitimacy and effectiveness. Moreover, member engagement can enhance members’ civic and political engagement.

But engaging members is not always easy. How do we increase member involvement in membership organizations? A recent study published in the Journal of Public and Nonprofit Affairs asked how gender congruence between members and board members in membership associations could affect volunteering. Representation studies like this suggest that gender congruence in organizations reinforce shared values. For example, if membership associations have more female board members, they can understand the organization’s values better and empathize more with organizational issues or goals while communicating about them more effectively.

The study shows that gender congruence between members and leadership does not encourage members’ volunteering behaviors, nor does it seem to have a moderating effect on the relationship between members’ gender and their interest in volunteering. In other words: Having female leaders at the helm does not necessarily translate to more engagement by female members of the organization, nor does it mean female members will volunteer for activities that are more intense in nature. This makes sense: Volunteering is a personal choice. Several reasons motivate or condition that level of engagement including a personal interest to serve, the need to establish connections, the interest to receive certain benefits and meeting certain expectations. That level of engagement also may depend on factors like a person’s capacity and skills, resources (or lack thereof) and situations (time and other obligations).

Where gender congruence does play a role is in the breadth and satisfaction of volunteering. Female members tend to volunteer in more activities and be more satisfied with the experience when a female executive director is leading the organization. Generally, females tend to volunteer in fewer activities than males; however, when women are in leadership positions, the situation is reversed. One explanation could be that female leadership favors more participation, creating more opportunities for involvement and making it easier for women to access management level positions. Demonstrating more empathic and prosocial values, women also may enable better communication and more trust, which then fosters loyalty and impacts behaviors among female members and subsequent satisfaction from the experience. Lastly, when they volunteer, female members might get involved in more activities as a sign of support of female leaders.

There are some lingering questions to ask. First, people typically can donate time or money. There might be some substitutive relationship between the two: Individuals volunteer less time when they donate more. Is the effect of gender congruence being channeled to more donations than volunteering among female members?

Second, is the gender of the leader more important than their leadership style, given that leadership has a direct impact on volunteer engagement in organizations? One example is that transformational leadership has been positively attributed with volunteer satisfaction in nonprofit organizations. As such, a charismatic, transformational leader might motivate followers to engage regardless of their gender.

Third, organizations (especially larger ones) can be complex systems with numerous hierarchical levels. Gender congruence might be less effective when we are looking at senior leadership and more effective when we examine closer, direct relations. For example, the gender congruence between members and organizational staff or direct supervisors might explain an individual’s behaviors better.

Fourth, all organizations have multiple internal and external stakeholders with which to interact, members being just one. Engaging stakeholders through involving members as volunteers is important but there are trade-offs to consider. Resource allocation and consumption is one, as nonprofits typically operate with fewer resources and might need to focus their capacity to deal with external stakeholders such as donors or government. The question is: Where should the engagement efforts be directed?

With these questions in mind it is important to note that, as important as gender is, it is but one aspect of the larger concept of identity. We all have multiple, overlapping identities that shape our thinking, behaviors and worldviews. Our identities’ intersection with those of others has the potential to change the course of action for an individual, as well as an organization. As the conversation continues to grow around different motivations for volunteering in nonprofits, gender should be considered holistically as part of a greater canvas of personal identity.


Authors:

Khaldoun AbouAssi is an associate professor of public administration and policy in the Department of Public Administration and Policy at American University. His primary research focuses on public and nonprofit management, examining organizational capacity, resources and interorganizational relations. He can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at @abouassi

Jake Gandolfi recently graduated with a Master of Public Administration from the School of Public Affairs at American University. He currently is a program associate with the YLAI Fellowship Program at IREX. He can be reached at [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.

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