Achieving change by transforming engagement

By Katja Jäger

Katja Jäger (biography)

How can civil society organisations, which rely on volunteer efforts, contribute more effectively to societal change? How can they position engagement with volunteers in a forward-looking way, so as to unleash the potential of committed people? What lessons does this have for researchers interested in social change efforts and in stakeholder engagement?

As a leader of a civil society organisation which works in the field of volunteer support, I am interested in how organisational engagement with volunteers can be most effective in supporting change efforts. Here I share a framework that we have found useful, along with four sets of questions for civil society organisations to reflect on in cooperation with their volunteers.

This work also aims to give researchers interested in social change insight into how they might effectively partner with civil society organisations, as well as how they might expand their thinking about engagement.

As a starting point, I have used the AQAL (All Quadrants All Levels) model shown in the figure below, which was developed by Ken Wilbur (1995) in his framework of integral theory. The model as shown was drawn by Keks Ackermann in Breidenbach and Rollow (2019). I have adapted it to examine engagement of volunteers.

In essence, the four quadrants in the model highlight that it is not enough to simply describe how an organisation is formally structured if we neglect the vibrant interaction that deeply defines an organisation. It is not enough to only determine how people behave if we fail to look at the motivation and attitudes underpinning this. If we want to reflect upon engagement and the people, it is necessary to look at both the inside and outside.

Further, people are individuals, yet as part of groups they also represent the collective. This is illustrated by considering values, where an individual may have his/her own values, but these only become a culture that is lived through negotiations with others. We need to integrate the individual and the collective at the same time.

Only when all four quadrants are viewed simultaneously and are in harmony with one another, can engagement unfold its full potential for society. In my work, I applied the model to the question of how volunteer-based organisations can make use of it, as shown in the reflective questions presented in the discussion of each quadrant.

The AQAL (All Quadrants All Levels) model. Source: Keks Ackermann in Breidenbach and Rollow (2019), based on Ken Wilbur (1995), CC BY-NC 2.0.

Quadrant 1: Mind and psyche

The individual world of experience is characterised by what people feel, think, the attitude with which they view the world, and also how their mind works. On the quadrant model, this area is located internally with the individual.

Reflective questions:

  • As an organisation, to what extent do I support volunteers’ examination of their internal attitude from which they view the world?
  • What motivates the volunteers to cooperate with my organisation? Where do they experience meaning?
  • Which subjective experiences do volunteers gain during their engagement? Which of them do they experience as positive, and which as negative?
  • Do volunteers have a contact point in the organisation to whom they can turn with individual concerns?
  • How can I support my volunteers to become more in tune with themselves, for example through offers such as guided meditation or other contemplative practices?

Quadrant 2: Abilities and behaviour

The individual realm of perception mainly observes cognitive constitutions such as knowledge, abilities and competencies, but also visible modes of behaviour. On the quadrant model, this area is located externally and with the individual.

Reflective questions:

  • How do my volunteers experience self-efficacy? How can I better turn expectations of self-efficacy into reality, for example by jointly developing and tracking goals as part of the engagement, or jointly reflecting on the organisation’s effectiveness in the world?
  • What function does the engagement fulfil for my volunteers? How can the engagement in my organisation do justice to this? Can I strengthen their autonomy by consciously granting volunteers a greater level of freedom?
  • What skills are needed for engagement in my organisation? Can I support volunteers in (further) developing these skills? Is there even a personal path of development that I can develop and track together with the volunteers?

Quadrant 3: Culture and communication

In addition to an individual’s own internal world, the realm of experience also plays out in a common “we.” Aspects such as communication, cultural elements and the compatibility of a person’s own value orientation with the values of the collective are relevant here. On the quadrant model, this area is located between internal and collective.

Reflective questions:

  • How explicit are our values? Which individual value maps are exhibited by my volunteers, and which are shared values in the organisation? Do we also reflect these values in everyday interactions, such as in group meetings?
  • To what extent is multiperspectivity a lived value? Can we also strengthen a change in perspective within the organisation by conducting an open dialogue on our volunteers’ different worlds (of experience)?
  • Do we sufficiently address diversity and equality? How diverse are we really? What efforts do we take to become more diverse; could, for example, a diversity training be helpful?
  • Do we have a common vision and goals? Are all volunteers aware of these and do they agree, or might it be necessary to revise them?
  • Have we established a culture of appreciation; do we give mutual (constructive) feedback?
  • What creates community in our organisation? What does this mean for the individual volunteers, what do they need to (continue) feeling as though they belong?

Quadrant 4: Structures and processes

The collective realm of perception looks at the level of structures and processes and is completely anchored in the external and collective. As regards change processes, this area is often prioritised since it is the easiest to perceive and seems possible to shape.

Reflective questions:

  • What roles do hierarchies play in our organisation? How explicit are our structures? Do they provide the necessary orientation, or do they tend to curtail freedom of action?
  • Which processes feel fluid and organic, which are rigid and need revising?
  • Which areas of activity need clear (judicial) responsibility, which can be transferred to some volunteers to organise themselves as an experiment?
  • How can I give the volunteers a sense of security when they feel overwhelmed by their responsibility? Can we jointly and openly discuss how to make adjustments so that areas of responsibility are commensurate with the workload?
  • Are the levels of responsibility between voluntary and salaried employees divided in a meaningful way? As an organisation, can I transfer some tasks in the long-term, especially those with legal consequences, to salaried employees or at least support volunteers in corresponding positions through (external) consulting services?


The reflective questions are not a solution in themselves. And yet, they can provide a starting point for addressing the organisation’s longstanding challenges from a new perspective, and for bringing new knowledge about engagement in organisations to light.

If you are involved in a civil society organisation, do these ideas resonate with you? Are there any additional questions that you would add or change? If you are a researcher interested in change does this provide insights into working with civil society organisations? If you are a researcher interested in stakeholder engagement, do the questions provide ways of thinking about how you might engage more effectively?

To find out more:

This i2Insights contribution is a lightly edited extract from Jäger, K. (2021). Transformation in Engagement and Engagement Undergoing Transformation. Schwarzkopf-Stiftung Junges Europa and betterplace lab (produced as part of the project “European Volunteer Capital Berlin”, as funded by the Berlin Senate). (Online): (PDF 3.7MB).


Breidenbach, J. and Rollow, B. (2019). New Work Needs Inner Work: Ein Handbuch für Unternehmen auf dem Weg zur Selbstorganisation. Vahlen Verlag: Munich, Germany.

Wilber, K. (1995). Sex, Ecology, Spirituality: The Spirit of Evolution. Shambhala Publications: Boston, United States of America.

Biography: Katja Jäger MA is the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of betterplace lab, a digital-social think-and-do tank in Berlin, Germany, that aims to shape digitization socially and make it usable for the common good. She is interested in digital-social innovation and democracy in a digital age.

1 thought on “Achieving change by transforming engagement”

  1. I really like the questions. Overall, it reminds me of the McKinsey 7S model of organisational change developed by Tom Peters and Bob Waterman in the early 80s; systems, structure, staff, strategy, style, shared values and skills. Bob died last year at 86. Tom is now in his 80s and still publishing.


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