Volunteer programs and the five Eastern elements

Elements of leadership

I recently had the pleasure of being interviewed on the Cosmic Detective radio program. During our discussion, host Debbi Lang mentioned the five elements of Eastern philosophy—fire, earth, metal, water and wood. We talked briefly about how those elements might align with the five aspects of my Strategic Volunteer Engagement model. (above).

Since that conversation, I’ve done a bit of research into the five Eastern elements and their various attributes, and have solidified the alignment as I see it.

Just so you know, I did do a bit of picking and choosing amongst the many attributes of each element. I’m not an expert by any means so if you are, please forgive my errors.


According to my research into the elements, fire represents, among other things, compassion, desire, spontaneity, and creativity. I see volunteer appreciation as the spark that ignites the passion within volunteers. It's about recognizing their efforts and lighting up their spirit. When volunteers feel appreciated it fuels the desire to contribute more, and they are more likely to be compassionate and spontaneous in their volunteering. By using creativity in your appreciation efforts, you can start a blaze of loyalty and dedication in the volunteers. Appreciation, like fire, keeps us all feeling warm.

Volunteer recruitment—Wood:

Wood symbolizes growth, expansion, and strength. A fitting analogy for recruitment. Volunteer recruitment is what grows the program and expands the impact of your organization, similar to the growth of a tree from a seed. It requires strength and resilience on the part of the leader of volunteers to expand the volunteer base effectively, but like the trunk of a tree, a well-designed recruitment strategy provides stability and support for the entire program, ensuring its sustainability and vitality.

Training and “onboarding”—Metal:

Metal embodies firmness, persistence, determination, and empathy. Training and onboarding volunteers requires all those and more. Good training requires a structured approach, firm in its principles yet flexible in its execution. It takes persistence to impart essential skills and knowledge, ensuring volunteers are equipped for their roles. Empathy is just as important, as people learn best from those that they feel care about their wellbeing. Just as metal is shaped by heat and pressure, effective training moulds random people into superstar volunteers, ready to serve with capability and passion.

Volunteer management—Earth:

Earth is stabilizing, patient, thoughtful, practical, nurturing, and responsible. The day-to-day management serves as the foundation of the program, providing stability and support to volunteers. As earth nurtures life, effective management fosters a sense of belonging and purpose among volunteers. It requires patience and thoughtfulness to address their needs and concerns, ensuring a practical and sustainable approach to program operations. Responsible stewardship of resources and clear communication are essential elements of successful volunteer management, grounding the program in its mission and values.

Program review—Water:

Of the Eastern elements, water represents wisdom, flexibility, fortitude, and strategy. Program review allows for continuous improvement and adaptation. Like water flowing around obstacles or slowly wearing them away, a well-conducted review process navigates challenges with wisdom and flexibility. It takes fortitude to confront our shortcomings, and implement the changes that enhance the program’s effectiveness. Strategic planning ensures that the program remains relevant and responsive to evolving needs, carrying you smoothly toward your goals.

Each element can offer insights into the dynamics of our volunteer programs.

Yes, this was just a fun exercise. However, every time we can look at our programs in a different way, we can learn things. When I was researching and writing this, for example, I realized, just as these Eastern elements work together smoothly in nature, so too must the various aspects of a volunteer program interact seamlessly to achieve the mission.

If one of them is misaligned with the others, that’s when the program will have difficulty. More specifically, you, as leader, will have difficulty

Our role as leader of volunteers is to keep everything in balance. Good luck.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

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About the Author

Karen Knight has provided volunteer recruitment, engagement and training for not-for-profit organizations for more than 25 years.

Her professional life has spanned many industries, working in both the private and public sectors in various leadership positions.

Through her passion for making a difference in the world, she has gained decades of experience in not-for-profits as a leader and a board member.

Karen served in Toastmasters International for more than 25 years, in various roles up to district director, where she was responsible for one of the largest Toastmasters districts in the world.

She oversaw a budget of $250,000 and 300 individual clubs with more than 5,000 members. She had 20 leaders reporting directly to her and another 80 reporting to them—all volunteers.

Karen currently serves as vice-president of the board of directors for the Kamloops Therapeutic Riding Association.

After many years working and volunteering with not-for-profits, she found many leaders in the sector have difficulty with aspects of volunteer programs, whether in recruiting the right people, assigning those people to roles that both support the organization’s mission and in keeping volunteers enthusiastic.

Using hands-on experience, combined with extensive study and research, she helps solve challenges such as volunteer recruitment, engagement and training for not-for-profit organizations.

Karen Knight can be contacted at [email protected], or through her website at https://karenknight.ca/.

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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