Transactional Leadership in a Volunteer Organization

When thinking about a volunteer organization such as African Impact, one would most likely anticipate that the people who work for the non-profit organization full-time would be there for selfless reasons. From the CEO to the volunteer coordinators on the ground, one would expect that each individual is driven to make the biggest positive impact on the local communities as they possibly can. In a Leadership Studies context, it would be expected that these leaders would take a transformational approach to leadership, working to better the company and the communities in the short and long-term. However, from my time at African Impact, I have found that transactional leadership is the most common form of leadership, from the head office in Cape Town, all the way down to the local community liaisons. This has been something I have found rather disappointing and would love to see improve in the future.

Transformational leadership, as introduced by James Burns, is defined as a leadership style that offers a purpose that transcends short-term goals and focuses on higher intrinsic needs. In doing this, transformational leaders will help push their followers to take initiative in order to better themselves and their community. Transactional leadership, on the other hand, is defined as leadership that focuses on the proper exchange of resources. Leaders simply give their followers something they want in exchange for something the leaders want. This usually comes in the form of labor in exchange for money. 

In a volunteer organization, however, this exchange is actually the opposite. Volunteers pay a significant amount for African Impact to provide them with a fulfilling and impactful experience. The ultimate goal of the volunteer organization is to, of course, serve the communities in which they work while also sustaining internal operations. I have found that over the course of six weeks it has become very obvious that African Impact is largely focused on the sustainability of their business model rather than the sustainability of their community projects. More than any other way, this has become obvious to me through an analysis of their leadership style. The staff at African Impact have adopted almost entirely a transactional leadership model.

From the head office in Cape Town, the majority of their operations focus on recruiting as many volunteers as possible through marketing and ensuring that volunteers feel like they walked away with a positive experience. In emails back and forth, they are sure to include buzzwords that make volunteers feel like they are contributing to a sustainable, ethical, and long-term community development model and employ transactional leadership tactics to inspire and stimulate volunteers to essentially volunteer again and bring more money into the organization. These tactics are extremely effective but the reality is that they are simply a marketing tool. From discussions with local staff and my own conversations with several coordinators in Cape Town, I get the sense that the office is not truly committed to the goals of community development and is instead simply aiming to bring in as much money as possible from volunteers.

This mentality unfortunately trickles down to the local branches where site managers and volunteer coordinators must focus more of their efforts on serving the needs of volunteers and keeping them happy in order to receive good reviews and therefore more funding for local projects. Because the head office is primarily concerned with economics rather than the social justice aspects of the projects, local staff is forced to meet their needs in order to remain financed and keep their projects going. This keeps them in an effective cycle of working hard to keep up with volunteers demands and day-to-day project operations and means that they cannot focus on long-term. I have noticed a lack of transformational leadership among the local staff and I believe it is contributing to their high turnover rates. Staff often burns out after a year or two, finding it too unsatisfactory because change happens in too long of time periods. Staff is finding a lack of intellectual stimulation (as Bass would put it) and so they are unable to take their own risks or contribute new ideas without a large degree of questioning from head office.

If the local African Impact staff were granted a higher degree of autonomy they would be able to think more in the long term and spend less time focusing on volunteer satisfaction. This would overall improve turnover rates and would contribute to volunteer satisfaction because they would be working on more meaningful projects.