Control and Accountability in Local Level Member Associations: Between Formal Democratic Structures and Informal Effective Control

Dennis J. Frederiksen*, Louise Brøns Kringelum

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to conference without publisher/journalConference abstract for conferenceResearchpeer-review


This paper aims to describe an inherent paradox found in non-profit member associations - a type of non-profit organisation found in the US (Tschirhart, 2006) , Europe (Ibsen et al. , 2019) and, perhaps especially widespread, in Scandinavia (Selle, 2013) . We define these associations as democratically structured, independent non-profit organisations where most of, or all actors involved internally with the association are volunteers and members of the association (Horch, 2018) .

The described paradox stems from a tension between two contradictory forms of control, ownership and accountability, which co-exists in these associations. The paradox is first and foremost, that member associations have formal democratic structures, that are seen as institutionalised and consequently taken for granted by members, as the natural way for a member associations to be structured (Burns & Scapens, 2000) . However, this paper argues that the democratic structure only constitutes formal control and not the full picture of effective control (Billis, 2010) . The democratic structure gives formal control and authority to certain roles in the association via general assemblies and elections, but this formal control co-exists with, and is often surpassed by, informal practices of control based on personal characteristics, interpersonal relationships, tradition and the volunteer nature of the work done.

This is initially explored and conceptualised as a tension between a rational system perspective and natural system perspective on organisations (Scott & Davis, 2007) . The rational system perspective sees member associations as formally structured and goal achievement-oriented hierarchies, where certain roles such as boards and managers have legitimate authority to control and hold others accountable towards commonly decided goals. The natural system perspective sees member associations as collectivities which are based on informal practices, where formal roles of authority do exist - but have little effective control over the organisation, and where formal decision-making bodies like general assemblies are not prioritised (or even attended) by most members in the association, despite of the supreme authority over the association it supposedly gives them.

The aim of the paper is to develop a conceptual model in which these two perspectives are seen as, at the same time, contradictive and co-existing in local level member associations. Implications of this paradox for voluntariness and management in member associations is discussed.

The authors only found few existing studies addressing the internal tensions inherent in (particularly local level) member associations. The level of democratic participation and the limits of association democracy is studied in 10 European countries by Ibsen et. al. (2019) . Hansen & Langergaard (2017) found tensions between participatory and representative democracy in a nonprofit resident democracy, Oelberger (2018) explored the balance between private and public goals in NPOs and contrasted this with goal orientation in member organisations, and identified a number of distinct organizational design characteristics related to either these internal private or wider public goals. Notably, Horch (2018) has made an important conceptual contribution to research on the organisational structure of local level associations primarily populated by volunteers. This paper seeks to contribute further to this work by focusing on the paradox described.
Original languageEnglish
Publication date2021
Publication statusPublished - 2021
EventThe 14th conference of the International Society for Third Sector Research: Global Civil Society in Uncertain Times: Strengthening Diversity and Sustainability - Online
Duration: 12 Jul 202115 Jul 2021
Conference number: 14


ConferenceThe 14th conference of the International Society for Third Sector Research
Internet address


  • Accountability
  • nonprofit organizations
  • member associations
  • associations
  • democracy


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