Stepping up or stepping out? Volunteer leaders in Australian grassroots associations

Author: Christel Mex

Mex, Christel, 2019 Stepping up or stepping out? Volunteer leaders in Australian grassroots associations, Flinders University, College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences

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Society benefits significantly from the work of small groups of volunteers who come

together for a common cause. Generally known as grassroots associations, it is estimated

that there are almost half a million of these groups operating in Australia today. Grassroots

associations are small, often community-based, and are run solely by volunteers without

the benefit of paid staff. Examples include environmental groups, sporting clubs, health

support groups, service clubs and even community bands. Despite the importance of

these associations in civil society, there is very little research on them in Australia.

This dissertation helps to fill this significant research gap by presenting a case study of the

current state of grassroots associations in South Australia. Through a mixed-methods

research approach, with 12 focus groups and a survey of 1,500 association members in

South Australia, the study argues that membership numbers of these associations are

indeed declining with fewer members willing to step up and become leaders. The thesis

also identifies why, or why not, members choose to nominate as leaders. Barriers to

leadership are presented at both the environmental and organisational level, and include

the rise of individualism, unwelcomed professionalism due to regulation and red tape,

demands of new technology and poor management including the misuse of power within

volunteer committees.

At the conclusion, integrated solutions are recommended based on the evidence

uncovered in the data. These solutions include a reduction of red tape imposed by

governments and insurers, more accessibility to the volunteering infrastructure and more

capacity building programs to enable positive and supportive cultures within grassroots


This thesis provides a substantial and original contribution to knowledge by generating and

uncovering critical new data on the state of grassroots associations in South Australia and

their governance. It finds that these groups make up the vast majority of the percentage of

the third-sector, yet are virtually ignored by governments and the volunteering

infrastructure. Most alarmingly, this study finds that these vital associations are not only

struggling to find replacement leaders, but many of them are struggling to survive. The

study also unveils new trends in small association volunteering and recommends

innovative policy solutions to build their capacity for the long term.

Keywords: Grassroots associations, Volunteer leaders, Volunteer committees, Community groups, Volunteer associations, Membership associations, Community based organizations, Volunteer recruitment, Volunteer management, Volunteer turnover, Civil society organizations, Micro organizations

Subject: Humanities thesis

Thesis type: Doctor of Philosophy
Completed: 2019
School: College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences
Supervisor: Professor Melanie Oppenheimer