What exactly does it take for a volunteer organization to succeed?

Attendees at the Global Shapers Summit, September 2022: The Global Shapers Community know why some volunteer organisations flourish while others fail to launch.

The Global Shapers Community know why some volunteer organisations flourish while others fail to launch. Image: orld Economic Forum/Pascal Bitz

Alexander Puutio
PhD Researcher at the University of Turku, Founding Curator of the New York Queens Global Shapers Hub
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  • The Global Shapers Community – a volunteer-run initiative led by young people and run by the World Economic Forum – has been asking its members about what they see as the root of their success.
  • The common factors identified between Global Shapers Hub members or curators indicate why some volunteer initiatives thrive more than others.
  • Purpose, a sense of performing meaningful work, focusing on hiring the right people, seizing the moment and asking for help were all common veins running through successful projects.

Why does one volunteer organization succeed and flourish while others fail to launch?

One excellent source for answers is the Global Shapers Community, which added 50 new hubs to its 500+ hub volunteer-led youth initiative in January 2023 alone. Over the past few months, we’ve been holding discussions, roundtables and numerous one-on-ones with curators who have succeeded in building local communities committed to positive change.

We sought to discover the common thread in successful youth mobilization by asking each hub what made their journey thrive and the lessons other young leaders could yield. Here’s what we found.

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1. It starts with a purpose

A strong sense of shared purpose was the most common factor among successful youth movements. Being able to articulate why you’re there appeared to be the guide budding leaders need to navigate their road ahead. However, the substance of that purpose matters far less than the conviction held and shared with the group.

For some, purpose comes from building the proverbial table that the next generation of leaders will lean into. For others, purpose is a singular fixation on the problems others aren’t addressing.

Whatever the group’s purpose, it is critical that goal is at the forefront of members’ minds, specifically in the first years of operations when there are no frameworks and routines to depend on.

2. Purpose must transform into a sense of meaning

Generation Z and millennials are more educated than previous age groups and are hyper-sensitive to the externalities organizations impose on their communities. As such, increasing numbers of younger people are laser-focused on ensuring their work has a net-positive impact on their world.

For many traditional organizational models, this motivation can pose challenges that we’ve seen culminate in phenomena such as quiet quitting, when employees put no more effort into their jobs than absolutely necessary, and the FIRE movement, which veers towards retiring significantly earlier.

Hubs said that to truly engage younger cohorts in formally organized settings, they need to be given the right combination of tasks and purpose, leading them to a path of “meaningfulness.”

The findings align with recent research indicating that youth participation and engagement increase in lockstep with the perceived relevance and personal alignment with the group and its values.

Although there’s no single winning recipe for creating meaningfulness and value alignment, one thing is sure: youth volunteer organizations have nothing to lose by communicating and committing to their values.

Leaders who chose to wait for less turbulent times before progressing projects were often confronted with declining participation and lower retention rates.

Dr. T. Alexander Puutio, Founding Curator, Global Shapers

3. Build on what you have

If you succeed in providing team members with meaning, there is little left to stop you from succeeding, including COVID-19 pandemics or disastrous floods and hurricanes.

We found that groups with a strong sense of meaning often galvanize and grow stronger bonds when faced with adversity, despite the organization’s resourcing and capacity. In fact, there was no correlation between the formality of its set-up and its success in meeting its first years’ goals. Instead, results depended more on having the right people in place and putting them on the right track early.

Once the right members are in place, results indicate it is time to build those individuals up for leadership. As one curator from Latin America noted, “incubating the next leaders needs to start immediately,” given that they are rarely born but, with the right approach, can be consistently made.

Building on the core strengths of the founding group can ultimately get the organization to a place where its resource needs are met. In contrast, having all the money in the world is not enough to make an organization successful.

4. Never wait for perfect conditions

Another differentiating factor between hubs that found long-term success and those that didn’t was what can only be described as “fearlessness.”

While logic dictates that the circumstances ought to be perfect to launch a major project, the findings of our qualitative study contradict such a custom.

In our sample group, leaders who chose to wait for less turbulent times before progressing projects were often confronted with declining participation and lower retention rates.

Hubs that bravely opted for implementation even when feeling overwhelmed and unequipped were much more likely to find long-term success, even if it was only a fraction of what they set out to attain.

The main takeaway here is the need to maintain momentum. Even the most intrinsically motivated group with high levels of meaning will quickly turn to other pursuits if momentum dwindles. Moreover, we found it difficult to regain a shared sense of drive once lost.

5. Global Shapers suggest embracing vulnerability

Finally, while it may seem counter-intuitive, we found the stereotype of leaders’ need for almost superhuman resilience for success inaccurate.

The most common feature of successful leaders in the Global Shapers community that we spoke to was confidence in one’s potential, with sincere humility and the ability to embrace one’s vulnerability. How this manifests in practice can easily be learnt by others, all that’s needed is to ask for help.

One successful founder from Western Asia emphasized that “being afraid to ask for help is the worst you can do as a leader,” with many others acknowledging the role of mentors, buddies and friendly faces in making their groups successful.

Our working theory is that leaders who actively seek support accomplish two particularly significant things in one go.

First, they continuously build their networks and directly put them in service of their organization, strengthening it in otherwise impossible ways.

Second, when seeking help from others, they subject their ideas to constant scrutiny, leveraging mass wisdom and groupthink.


While more could be said about common levers of success among the Global Shapers Hubs, they warrant their own analysis. And with more than 10,000 shapers in 150 countries, there is still much work to cover. We’ll return to report our final thoughts once we formalize our findings in the coming year.

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