Volunteer Participation in Development: How Organisational Power and Structure Interact to Exclude or Include

Ms Stephanie Houghton1

1La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia


The development sector has long engaged voluntary workers in NGOs across the globe. However, organisations can struggle to incorporate short-term, international volunteers into their organisations in inclusive, appropriate and effective ways. Existing literature is yet to thoroughly address issues of power and relationships when it comes to short-term volunteers within development. This ethnographically grounded research explored experiences of staff, volunteers and stakeholders of a local organisation in Ghana. Volunteers were expected to participate according to organisational goals, vision and activities. However, many factors influenced volunteer ability, willingness and capacity to participate. Conflict arose between organisational discourse and structure, and the interests and agency of individual volunteers, staff and stakeholders. Tensions included miscommunications surrounding the purpose and goals of the organisation; differing understandings of the role of volunteers; issues with the governance of volunteers; and the limitations of inclusivity in the organisation. These issues directly affected the potential for mutual benefit for both volunteers and the organisation. Conclusions include reflections on how the organisation can address power relations through a more inclusive structure. These changes could increase volunteer participation, mitigate inequalities and promote inclusivity to the mutual benefit of stakeholders.


Steph Houghton (BA Hons) is a current PhD candidate in Social Inquiry, exploring how organisations engage and interact with volunteers within development in Ghana.  She is interested in themes of power, participation and agency within organisations. shoughton@live.com.au

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