Something I've noticed in just about every organization that I've been a part of is the old adage:

In any organization 10% of the people do 90% of the work.

This seems particularly true in volunteer organizations, where people aren't being paid, and things are considerably less organized. To some degree, this is to be expected when you're relying on volunteers, you can't really force anyone to do anything, so you end up with a passionate handful handling the less fun work and more or less running the show.

I say "running the show" very loosly. These people aren't really "in charge" they just happen to be the people who show up reliably and participate consistently. They end up making more decisions simply because they bothered to show up and make their voices heard more often.

This tends to cause obvious problems...

In a volunteer organization where everyone pretty much has an equal say, some people end up having more say than others simply by being present more. But of course newcomers and very occasional volunteers tend to see a core group making all the decisions among themselves. This creates conflict.

I'm wondering what if anything can be said or done to avoid that conflict or that perception?

My thinking tends to be:

Well, speak up if you want to be heard. Show up to the meetings and participate. You can't really blame us for taking care of stuff without your input if you're not here, or giving input.

This tends to entrench negative feelings. And worse leaves us with a number of people wanting to play Capt Hindsight... Basically those that have nothing to contribute during the decision making process, but lots of criticism after a decision is made or an action taken.

I've encountered this problem in all kinds of volunteer work. From beach cleanups, to food pantries, to disaster relief, to political activism, even with church organizations.

What's a more effective way to ask people to get involved if they want to be involved?

  • Could the newcomers and occasional volunteers be intentionally not giving input because they feel that they don't work enough? Just a thought. Jun 2, 2018 at 2:45
  • @TheRealLester Doubtful. They're often asked for input.
    – apaul
    Jun 2, 2018 at 2:46
  • 2
    What's the size of the organization? Ten people? A thousand? The approach may vary considerably depending on it. Jun 2, 2018 at 11:06
  • @LinuxBlanket Anywhere between 10 and 200. I've noticed roughly the same pattern in a lot of organizations.
    – apaul
    Jun 2, 2018 at 16:09

1 Answer 1


While being a member in multiple volunteer organizations over the course of my life, I have the experience to know that this statement:

These people aren't really "in charge" they just happen to be the people who show up reliably and participate consistently.

is an illusion. Humans don't work that way. We are hard-wired to build hierarchies. Even if you consciously decide to not have formal hierarchies, informal hierarchies will form automatically. Those on top of the hierarchy will be those who take on the most responsibilities and thus make the most decisions.

People subconsciously know about these informal hierarchies. If one of those people who earned an informal "show runner" position due to doing a lot of work makes a proposal, those who don't do anything know that they don't have earned the right to object. So they don't feel like they belong into these decision-making meetings.

Those who feel discontent with this situation might however object privately in discussions with other low ranking members. This can be toxic for an organization.

But how can we channel the energy used on this toxic behavior into more constructive behavior?

An organization with a 10% core team doing and deciding everything, 90% followers doing and deciding nothing and nobody in between is usually not a healthy organizations. You should usually strive for a more pyramid-shaped hierarchy with different levels of people taking on a bit of responsibility and getting a bit of authority in return.

Now is the question: How do you "promote" people from the followers into the middle-ground sections?

In my experience, the best way to get people to get more engaged in the organization is to ask them privately to take on responsibilities.

But if you just ask into a big assembly:

"Who would like to volunteer for [annoying and ungrateful task]?"

then it is very easy for people to just look down and stay silent, hoping someone else will volunteer. When nobody volunteers and you pick someone, asking "how about you?", then it will look like you are using group pressure to force someone to do something, which will usually be perceived as very authoritarian.

But if you ask someone in a personal 1-on-1 conversation:

"We really need someone to do [annoying and ungrateful task], which isn't actually annoying and ungrateful at all. I think you would be perfectly suitable for this task due to [positive personal qualities]. Would you like to take this responsibility?"

Now if they want to get out of that commitment, they can't just be silent. They have to actually provide an excuse to you. If they do have an excuse they would not like to admit in public ("I don't feel ready for that much responsibility", "I would like to, but I am too stressed and need more time for myself", "I have a good reason why I should not volunteer for this but I don't want everyone to know that reason"...), they are more able to say so in a private conversation than in front of a public assembly. You can then either accept that excuse or try to convince them that it won't be that bad and that they have your full support.

If they do agree to the task, don't forget to immediately show them your gratitude and assure them your trust in them. Personal recognition is the most important motivator to keep people engaged in volunteer work.

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