Accepted Paper:

Crowd crystals and birdwatchers: charismatic leadership in volunteer organisations  


Dan Podjed (ZRC SAZU)

Paper short abstract:

The paper focuses on charismatic leaders in the Slovenian birdwatching association and on their role in the creation and transformation of a volunteer organization. The author uses the metaphor of “crystals” as he explains the mobilization and motivation skills of such central persons.

Paper long abstract:

The author's starting-point is a metaphor of novelist Elias Canetti's who compared charismatic leaders to "crowd crystals". This paper focuses on the role of such leaders in the process of the mobilization ("crystallization") of volunteers. It discusses various definitions of charisma (e.g. Weber's and Bourdieu's) and tries to place the cryptic property in anthropological settings.

The paper's central focus is based on ethnographic research carried out with the largest Slovenian birdwatching association (DOPPS). It was established by a group of enthusiasts in the late 1970s and gradually grew into a large and influential research and nature conservation NGO. Its growth was strongly demarcated by some key figures that have been described many times as the "driving gears" of organization.

The paper analyzes characteristics of such charismatic leaders and their role in the creation and transformation of volunteer organizations in different stages of its growth and in changing socio-political milieu. It tries to find out why members of associations are fascinated by some individuals (who are not necessarily formal leaders), why they follow their ideas and what are the underlying reasons for their appeal. The case of the founding "father" of DOPPS is presented in-depth through an exploration of his role in establishing and reframing the association.

The paper concludes with questions about charismatic leaders in relation to volunteering, altruism and self-interest. In answering the author rejects the simplistic dichotomy of altruism and self-interest and tries to provide a more balanced view on the topic.

Panel W101
Getting behind 'no man is an island' phrase: volunteering between altruism and self-interest