It’s Not All the Same: Implemented and Perceived HR Practices in the Volunteer Context

AuthorMarlene Walk,Charity Scott,Laura Littlepage
Published date01 September 2022
Date01 September 2022
Subject MatterArticles
Review of Public Personnel Administration
2022, Vol. 42(3) 492 –513
© The Author(s) 2021
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0734371X21994631
It’s Not All the Same:
Implemented and
Perceived HR Practices
in the Volunteer Context
Marlene Walk1, Charity Scott2,
and Laura Littlepage3
Being strategic and intentional in the management of volunteers is increasingly
important to tackle volunteer retention and improve other volunteer outcomes.
Drawing on strategic human resource management (SHRM), this inductive study
utilizes qualitative data from interviews to explore how volunteers in a large youth
organization perceive HR practices of training and recognition. Volunteer accounts
are supplemented with focus group data from front-line staff to capture how HR
practices are implemented. Findings indicate a disconnect between implemented and
perceived HR practices in some, but not all, areas. Inconsistent and unintentional
communication was the main driver for negative volunteer perceptions.
strategic human resource management, perceptions, HR practices, volunteers,
Background and Significance
Volunteering continues to be a backbone for service-providing nonprofits, with
24.9% of the population 16 years and older (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2016a)
spending a median of 52 hours of volunteering annually (Bureau of Labor Statistics,
1Indiana University-Purdue University, IN, USA
2The Ohio State University, Columbus, OH, USA
3Indiana University Bloomington, IN, USA
Corresponding Author:
Marlene Walk, Paul H. O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs, Indiana University-Purdue
University, 801 W Michigan Street, IN 46202, USA.
994631ROPXXX10.1177/0734371X21994631Review of Public Personnel AdministrationWalk et al.
Walk et al. 493
2016b). Without them, nonprofits reliant on volunteers—about 80% of all charitable
organizations—would not be able to provide the same level and/or quality of ser-
vices (Hager & Brudney, 2008). It is therefore vital for nonprofits to devote attention
to the question of how to retain their volunteer workforce, just as they would for paid
To tackle volunteer retention and improve other volunteer outcomes such as satis-
faction or engagement, researchers have increasingly advocated for the importance of
a strategic approach towards human resource management (HRM) when managing
volunteers (Hager & Brudney, 2015; Saksida et al., 2017). This line of research has
focused on the design and intentions behind human resource (HR) practices and their
impact on volunteer outcomes. Findings indicate that HR practices such as training or
recognition increase volunteers’ ability, motivation, and opportunity to perform
(Rogers et al., 2016) and reduce problems with volunteer turnover while increasing
retention (Cuskelly et al., 2006; Walk et al., 2019).
This work builds on strategic human resource management (SHRM), which focuses
on “designing and implementing a set of internally consistent policies and practices
that ensure a firm’s human capital contributes to the achievement of its business objec-
tives” (Huselid et al., 1997, p. 172). Whereas it has long been clear that HR practices
impact organizational performance, the process through which this happens is less
straight-forward (Nishii & Wright, 2008). To further clarify this process, the SHRM
process model distinguishes between intended, actual, and perceived HR practices
(Nishii & Wright, 2008). Specifically, HR practices may not (or not always) impact
organizational performance directly, because how HR practices were intended (e.g.,
planned/designed) may not be congruent with how they are implemented in practice
and with how employees perceive these HR practices. Employees, then, perceive and
react to the HR practices as implemented rather than how they were initially designed,
which impacts their attitudes and behavior.
While scholars acknowledge that the volunteer experience matters (Wilson, 2012)
and research on volunteer management and HR practices in the volunteer context is
growing (e.g., Cuskelly et al., 2006; Rogers et al., 2016; Walk et al., 2019), little
research has focused on volunteers perceptions of how they are managed. Similar to
the context of paid employees (Nishii & Wright, 2008), it is likely that volunteers’
perceptions of HR practices impact their attitudes to volunteer work and behaviors
when volunteering. Building on SHRM theory and literature, we therefore ask: How
do volunteers perceive HR practices? To answer our research question, we draw on
interviews with volunteers in a large youth-serving nonprofit to capture perceptions of
HR practices. We supplement these with focus group data from staff to capture the
implementation of HR practices.
Whereas there have been considerable efforts to adapt HRM to volunteers (e.g.,
Hager & Brudney, 2015; Saksida et al., 2017; Walk et al., 2019), SHRM research in
the nonprofit context “is still very much in its infancy” (Baluch & Ridder, 2020, p. 5).
Whether or not (and if so how) volunteer perceptions of HR practices matter is not
well understood. Since volunteers and paid employees have different motivations and
dispositions to work in the nonprofit sector (Studer & von Schnurbein, 2013), we use

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