In a 2018 article, nonprofit leader Jan Masaoka called the nonprofit sector to task. She named the growing professionalization of the sector and its reliance on consultants as a step away from nonprofit roots in activism and the causes that drive it.1 This shift has led to increasing “sophistication” in nonprofit operations, with paid professionals more often at the helm. In many cases, it has also sidelined communities as active participants in nonprofit work.

Is there a way to address this? A renewal of volunteerism may provide one path.

One CEO of a large social service agency with government contracts shared, “Volunteers are a great way that we can reconnect with our advocacy and our social justice roots.” His government contracts emphasize numbers, but he views volunteers as a key part of what (and, more importantly, how) the organization delivers those numbers.

Likewise, the volunteer director of a faith-based agency notes that it is volunteers who give the agency the ability to offer services that are compassionate, caring, and community building. Yet volunteer work is routinely challenged by financial pressures.

These observations and the following perspectives offer insight into the push-and-pull tension that nonprofit leaders experience between the narrow accountability of funded work and the broader accountability to their missions and communities.

Nonprofit Priorities as Functions of Their Instrumental and Expressive Elements

One way to view this tension is as a function of organizations’ instrumental and expressive dimensions. Instrumental elements are practical, achievement oriented, and resource seeking. Expressive elements are symbolic, value oriented, and resource consuming. Wenjue Knutsen and Ralph Brower examined this topic in a study of Canadian nonprofits, and helped paint a picture of how these elements play out in day-to-day life.2

For example, nonprofits pursue instrumental tasks, such as program delivery and fundraising, to accomplish their objectives. Conversely, the reasons nonprofits carry out these tasks reflect their expressive dimensions. Expressive work often manifests as values like dignity, equity, hope, or care.

Knutsen and Brower had an intriguing finding in their study. They proposed that when leaders are accountable to many stakeholders, “expressive accountabilities have a risk of being traded off.”3 The strong, externally driven forms of instrumental enforcement, combined with the limited visibility of the expressive, risk “‘crowding out’ an organization’s attention to mission,” leading to a loss of “organizational autonomy and weakening the pursuit of values.”4

In other words, nonprofit leaders can be so consumed with meeting external mandates (such as grants or funder reports) that the community gets short shrift. Funders or contract partners are centered at the expense of clients and missions.

How is this possible? For one, instrumental work is much more visible and measurable. You can see people served and count dollars raised. Instrumental activities are often linked to funding and have tangible mechanisms of accountability (such as grant reports). In addition, instrumental tasks have a penalty for failure: the withholding of funding or other critical support.

By contrast, expressive work is hard to measure and often invisible and/or intangible. (For example, how do you measure values?) The mechanisms that provide accountability are difficult to measure and see. (How do you assess an agency’s sense of shared ownership with the community?) There are downsides for failing to operate in alignment with the mission or values (such as mission creep), but expressive accountability is typically voluntary and internal.

Volunteerism as the Nexus of the Instrumental and Expressive

Volunteerism provides a unique function and opportunity in nonprofit agencies. It operates at the intersection of the instrumental and expressive. Volunteers take actions that benefit the organization (the instrumental). Simultaneously, their service is often driven by and functions as an outward expression of values or identity (the expressive). Their work is both a concrete and a symbolic endeavor between the organization and the community. This rich nexus of the instrumental and expressive through service can be powerful if volunteers are engaged well.

Thoughtful volunteer engagement provides a host of instrumental and expressive benefits. For example, it:

  • generates valuable labor,
  • educates the community about organizational mission and social issues,5
  • leads to funding and in-kind gifts,6
  • contributes to a sense of shared ownership of and commitment to a cause,7
  • expands the organization’s expertise and networks,8 and
  • fosters organizational trust and transparency.9

Organizations rely on these unique contributions of volunteers and the volunteer engagement function for success. However, because it is not easy to see, touch, or measure these by-products of good volunteerism, service tends to be underappreciated. Because few external partners require nonprofits to track these benefits as grant deliverables, service gets overlooked as a meaningful and investment-worthy strategy. As a result, volunteer engagement tends to be underresourced,10 which sets up a vicious cycle. Poor investment leads to poor results, which makes it difficult to justify more investment.11 Despite the benefits of good volunteer engagement, it tends to be a casualty of more instrumental functions.12

Many have responded to these challenges by using instrumental tools to reveal and amplify the work of volunteers. So, nonprofits count and monetize it, apply human resources models used in businesses to “professionalize” it, theorize and study it, and build a case for it.

Borrowing instrumental tools can be a worthwhile strategy. Yet nonprofits do a disservice to their communities when instrumental strategies crowd out the diverse purposes of involving volunteers. Specifically, the work of volunteers is devalued when nonprofits report their numbers and financial value and omit their expressive value and meaning. The value of volunteer service is diminished when nonprofits emphasize only its instrumental dimensions.

Reintegrating the Instrumental and Expressive Dimensions in Nonprofits

Clearly, nonprofits need to tend to both the instrumental and expressive aspects of the mission. Having values or purpose does not mean much without putting action behind them. If there is a tendency for the instrumental to crowd out the expressive, however, how can nonprofits ensure that the expressive remains central to the work? Put another way, how can nonprofits ensure that they maintain at least as much accountability to their mission, values, clients, and community as they do to their logic models, strategies, funders, and board members?

  • First, embrace the expressive element of nonprofit work. One glance at today’s headlines makes it clear how much need there is for values like compassion, stewardship, and love. If you need a permission slip to be emboldened to prioritize organizational values, client needs, and community voices, consider this article “permission granted.”
  • Next, adopt volunteer engagement as a vehicle for the expressive dimension of nonprofit work. Most nonprofits address causes that are com