Managing Organisation Tensions.

HARNESSING THE Passion OF VOLUNTEERS through Good Organisation Design

Today, 5 December, is the UN International Volunteers Day. So, a shout out to everyone who reads this article who volunteers in one way or another. There will be plenty of other articles and posts extolling the virtues of volunteering. I’ll just say, if you have the opportunity to be a volunteer, do it.

2 years ago, I joined easylaughs in Amsterdam. For those who have been living under a rock or not reading my LinkedIn posts and articles, easylaughs is a volunteer run school for improvisation and stand up. My first encounter with easylaughs was by attending workshops, courses and performing on stage.

I have also recently completed an organisation design masterclass hosted by my Metalogue. Why do I mention this? Well, the purpose of this article is to look at the application organisation design processes when being applied to a volunteer based entity, and how this might be different compared to other organisations.

As I mentioned, I had been involved with easylaughs for a short while, during which time I got to know the ins and outs of the foundation. I was able to bring a fresh perspective to the foundation and quickly realised that there was a better way to get things done. So, rather than sit on the sidelines I stepped up and volunteered my organisation design (OD) services.


  • Volunteer run organisations face unique challenges when it comes to structures and processes.
  • When it comes to organisation design, they face many of the same challenges as corporate entities
  • There is a skill in harnessing the passion of volunteers during periods of change
  • Not everyone will be pleased with the outcome, so don’t try and please everyone
  • Having a clear process, and sticking to it it crucial

What Problem are we trying to solve?

I want to stress that easylaughs is at its heart an amazing group of diverse, talented, and committed people. They – we – love what we do. We create stories, we entertain, we provide a platform for people to grow and develop. And, more than ever, a place for people to connect and create a sense of belonging. As you read this article it may appear that things were broken – they were not.  Like every organisation, there is always an opportunity to improve.

Before delving deeper into this story, a point of clarity is needed. There’s a world of difference between a non-profit entity with a paid staff and an entity that is fully volunteer-run like ‘easylaughs’. This distinction is far from trivial, as it affects everything from managing emotions and passion, decision-making processes to who holds the reins of power and how swiftly we can adapt and evolve.

Regardless of the type of organisation, before embarking on a redesign it is important to be clear on what is the problem you are trying to solve. In most organisations the senior leadership would be responsible for this and, if done well, staff would be asked their views and opinions. The complication for easylaughs was who gets to decide what the problems are and potential course of action?

After many coffee conversations, what I discovered were the following challenges that needed to be addressed. These will be familiar to others working in volunteer organisations:

  • Lack of clarity around the decision making process which was resulting in confusion, poor follow through and annoyances.
  • Lack of clarity around how things get done and need to get done, for example planning shows and courses.
  • Too many people getting involved in low level decisions, all from a well-intentioned belief that they should be involved.
  • A few people doing too much work with the risk that the flame of passion for the foundation burns out, things get dropped and potentially they leave.
  • Misalignment on the fundamental of what is easylaughs, what does it stand for. In short, its mission and values

The result of the above was people leaving to join other improvisation groups or stepping back and becoming passive rather than much needed active volunteers.

There was little resistance to the above pain points and the idea of “there must be a better way for us to get things done”. This initial scan showed how important it is during an OD process to address the why for any change. The challenge now was in defining that best way to get there.

Agree the governance model on who will lead the change.

Governance, leadership, hierarchy – these are not words that land lightly on a volunteer organisation of only 50 people. The first course of action was to agree who would lead or co-ordinate the change. Even this task proved challenging as the very loose leadership structure that was in place didn’t meet the needs for leading such shift.

Some people were not motivated by the task at hand, they just wanted to perform. Others saw any change as a threat to their current level of influence. And for a small number it was seen as a way to address long held grievances.

What we agreed was to create a small team that had the time and interest to do the initial thinking and preparation work. This would then be shared with those who were interested from the wider organisation.

Start with Purpose, Mission, and Values

It seems strange to suggest that we need to even revisit our purpose. Aren’t volunteer organisations purpose driven? Short answer is yes. However, just like strategic intent, unless people are reminded, the purpose can be interpreted in different ways. Further, there is a phenomenon known as mission creep. We needed to make sure that we had not strayed from the original purpose of easylaughs – and if we had, redefine our purpose.

 Our discussions reflected the passion and individual interests that brought people to easylaughs.  Was our purpose driven by being a performance based organisation, a theatre school, a place for personal development, a community group to meet new people, or a mix of these? Whilst we weren’t explicit about it, the answer to these questions informed our design principles.


For us the place to start was working out all the ‘stuff’ that needs to get done to run easylaughs. For volunteer organisations this is critical as people are giving up their limited and precious time to help.

There is power in everyone being on the same page when it comes to the work that needs to get done. I have sat in leadership team meetings and often heard “I didn’t know that you were working on that. I thought so and so was!”

As we explored what it took to run easylaughs, there was a lot. At times it felt overwhelming, so an important step was to cluster and simplify. It became clear that tasks fell into the following ‘buckets’.

  • Running the organisation, including the required legal representation
  • Planning Shows – on and off-stage tasks
  • Planning Workshops and Courses
  • Finance, marketing and other administrative tasks

We also began to apply the principles of ESSA to all the tasks. This is a continuous improvement practice that I picked up whilst working at Shell:

  • What can we Eliminate or stop doing?
  • What can we Simplify?
  • What can we Standardise?
  • What can we Automate?

Even a volunteer organisation needs an operating model

Volunteers don’t like hierarchy – well we don’t! A traditional operating model and accompanying organisation chart would have created more tension and resistance than anyone wanted. But we did need some form of graphical representation on how we would structure ourselves to get the identified work done.

What we created was a central team, the Group Mind. This is an improv term that describes a team of players acting as one entity AND resulting in more than the sum of the parts. We avoided traditional labels and so established the following positions:

  • Chief of Laughs – head of the easylaughs Group Mind
  • Chief of Shows – think artistic director
  • Chief of Learning – responsible for courses and workshops
  • Chief of Finance
  • Chief of Operations – all the backstage work such as booking rehearsals and theatre spaces
  • Chief of Volunteers – to manage the people helping with marketing, scanning tickets etc etc
easylaughs operating model

The Resourcing Challenge won’t be solved by job descriptions.

Unlike a corporate entity, we needed to bring everyone along with the new structure. We used our various communication channels to keep people updated and seek feedback. What became clear was that for most of the foundation, they were happy to let others do this design work.

Secondly, apart from a few key roles, there was little value in creating a whole set of positions and job descriptions. We found our best strategy was to further simplify and then ask, or invite people to volunteer their time to complete very specific activities or tasks.

And now it is time to raise the curtain and go live!

Given our size and not so complex organisation, we decided to go with a gentle walk on (it’s a stage term) rather than big bang. We had no systems to cut over or complex processes to launch. Rather we took a more personal touch and engaged with volunteers who were contributing to each area. Where there was a need for a change, this was made clear and with an invitation for feedback on how we might do things even better.

To an outsider it probably looked as though not much had changed, and that is a good thing. On the inside though it felt more like an inflexion point setting easylaughs up for a brighter future.

So, what were the outcomes?

Our journey so far has taken about a year. There are somethings that you just can’t rush, and I am believer in the quote from Peter Senge that ‘sometimes you need to slow down to go fast’. By taking our time and continually engaging people, we have moved easylaughs to organisation where:

  • We have a clearer vision of who we are and on what we focus our collective energy and attention
  • People are more committed and enjoying performing, teaching, learning about theatre tech etc
  • It is clearer who is responsible for what decisions and deliverables which makes it easier to share the load.
  • We have put in place processes and channels of communication so that people feel more connected to easylaughs
  • By having people with dedicated and contained tasks more gets done. We even discovered that as a not for profit we were entitled to so much free technology and software – check out
  • And importantly, we feel ok that we can’t be all things to all people and that it is ok if people leave to join other improv groups.

Did we get everything right first time around?

Short answer is no. Remember that comment about artistic direction and whether we were all about shows? After a tense period we saw a change of people. Some left, some joined, and some came back. This highlights the importance of being clear on your purpose and holding the course. That is also the reality of volunteer organisations.

We changed our cast structure by creating three casts (short form, long form and musical) which has really tapped into people’s passion for the type of shows they want to perform in.

Finally, we also found that our labelling of groups was not helping our overall philosophy. Language matters. By having a separate group labelled as volunteers it was not fully appreciated by all, especially new joiners. At the end of the day everyone is a volunteer.

In conclusion,

Passion is the fuel of volunteer run organisations. The challenge for the leadership is to harness that passion in a productive way. Just like any other organisation it is important that you are set up for success today and growth for the future. Doing so may require a change in how you are structured. I hope that through this article I have shown that volunteer organisations should not be afraid to apply workplace solutions. Secondly, by holding true to the principles of good organisation design that all important passion and commitment can not only be protected but enhanced.

Are you about to embark on an organisation redesign?

Contact us today to find out how Nexi Consulting can support you and your teams.

Contact Us
Privacy Preferences
When you visit our website, it may store information through your browser from specific services, usually in form of cookies. Here you can change your privacy preferences. Please note that blocking some types of cookies may impact your experience on our website and the services we offer.