Skip to content
Skip to main content

About this free course

Become an OU student

Download this course

Share this free course

Introducing the voluntary sector
Introducing the voluntary sector

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

3 Engaging and empowering

Image of the word empower written on a chalkboard, with the ‘o’ replaced with an image of a heart.
Figure 4 Empowering people

Engaging and empowering employees, volunteers, communities and beneficiaries is seen to be a ‘good thing’. Although the two processes are interrelated, engaging generally refers to getting people interested or ‘on board’ and providing information and encouragement. Empowering is the next step whereby people can be enabled to have a voice. Furthermore, empowerment is embedded in wider views of the world and theoretical ideas about citizenship, rights and responsibilities, democracy, political participation and creating a better society. Crucially, though, the term means different things to different people. For example:

  • ‘Send your staff on our course to empower them to meet your objectives’ proclaims a leaflet advertising a high-powered course.
  • A volunteer coordinator says, ‘empowerment has changed how we work and we’ve seen people really grow’.
  • An activist committee member says, ‘we are not true to our principles unless our service users are empowered and given a voice on the committee’.

Even these few quotes illustrate how the same word is used with quite different meanings. The Collins Online Dictionary (n.d.) defines the verb ‘to empower’ as follows:

To give or delegate power or authority to

To give ability to; enable or permit.

This definition contains an ambiguity often present in discussing empowerment – that is, it is not clear whether power is transferred absolutely or is simply ‘on loan’ and can be taken back.

A definition from an advocacy organisation gives a greater sense of how the term can be used in voluntary organisations:

Empower – we will work in an empowering way that enables people to develop their skills and confidence, stand up for their rights and regain control – creating a culture of enablement not dependency.

(POhWER, 2014)

In this context, the term ‘dependency’ is about not being dependent on professionals. This differs from how it is often used by politicians to mean dependency on the state. Empowerment is not necessarily a straightforward process and involves various challenges as illustrated by Activity 5.

Activity 5 What are the challenges?

Timing: Allow approximately 10 minutes

Read the case study below and make notes on the challenges for empowerment.

Case study: Challenges of empowerment

A UK arts centre has members, who pay an annual subscription and elect half of the management committee and users, who include all paying customers and also patrons of rehearsal facilities and the coffee bar. The arts centre’s Memorandum of Association states that its objective is to benefit the public (i.e. its beneficiaries) of a specific geographical community, regardless of age, gender, race or religion. The social and demographic profile of the centre’s beneficiaries differs sharply from that of its members or users. In addition to these three groups, there are the public and private funders of the arts centre, and its staff. Within each of these five groups of stakeholders, there are opposing views on what the arts centre should be doing, and many who have no strong view.

The arts centre’s new director was committed, politically and philosophically, to the concept of empowerment: he believed those without power should gain it at the expense of establishment elites, who he perceived as holding power in society. He saw the arts centre in the same terms.

However, he found it very difficult to put these beliefs into practice. Public grant funders wanted to retain their say in what the centre put on and what it charged. Some private financiers threatened to end their support if they lost certain controls: they wished to consider the centre’s programme before they consented to adding their logos.

The wider population’s views about and interest in the centre proved difficult to ascertain without expensive survey work and long-term community arts development projects. Users’ power seemed to lie in their purses: if they thought the programme and the facilities represented good value, they came. If not, they didn’t.

The results of a members’ questionnaire proved very different from the views expressed by the majority of members who attended an open meeting: the meeting proposed that elected member representatives should have an overall majority of places on the management committee. This would have been at the expense of 50 per cent of the committee places reserved for trusts and staff.

After six months of turmoil, the new director quietly dropped his interest in empowerment. He then spent much of his time rebuilding relationships of trust with members of various stakeholder groups.

To use this interactive functionality a free OU account is required. Sign in or register.
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).


The challenge thrown up by this case study is about empowering internal and external stakeholders. Different people place different emphases on who is to be empowered. Some may understand empowerment primarily as internal empowerment, and may be concerned about the skills, abilities and enthusiasm of staff, and about what say they have in their jobs and in the running of the organisation. Others may be more concerned about external empowerment – that is, the power of those whom the organisation is supposed to serve.

In this example of the arts centre, the issue of internal empowerment is a relatively small aspect of a much bigger and very complicated arena for the question of empowerment to be addressed. The experience of empowerment was negative in this case, but this should not persuade us that empowerment is unachievable. Different ways of going about things, and building more on what was there with a longer time frame in mind, may have produced much more positive results.