2011. Vol.2, No.5, 450-455
Copyright © 2011 SciRes. DOI:10.4236/psych.2011.25070
When Commitment Is Not Enough: How Stress and
Individual-Organization Interface Affect Activists’ Persistence
Terri Mannarini, Cosimo Talò
Department of Education, University of Salento, Lecce, Italy.
Received June 26th, 2011; revised July 21st, 2011; accepted August 12th, 2011.
In light of collective action and community development research, this study aims at testing a model of activist
persistence that takes into account both individual and organizational levels. The proposed model predicted that
commitment to a group/organization or its cause does affect an activists’ persistence. This relationship is medi-
ated by two variables, namely the individual-organization interface and stress management processes. The model
was empirically tested through a path analysis on a sample of 278 (N = 278; 43.9% female) participants re-
cruited among active members in a variety of community groups/organizations. The results supported the pattern
described by the model, showing that commitment is a precursor to activists’ persistence. However its direct
impact is weaker than the impact exerted by stress levels and the fit between the individual and the group/organi-
zation. Applications for community development practice are discussed.
Keywords: Collective Action, Community Development, Activist Persistence, Activist Retention, Organizational
Commitment, Stress, Coping, Social Support
There is a considerable amount of literature on collective
action that has investigated the psychosocial mechanisms that
lead individuals to join a variety of community groups, such
as advocacy and social action groups, protest movements,
and community service groups. Yet, far less is known about
the factors that sustain such engagement over time, resulting
in the phenomenon of activist retention (or activist persis-
tence). The social movement literature has highlighted the
role played by individual factors (e.g., changes due to life
cycle; McAdam, 1988), interpersonal variables (social net-
works, Diani, 2005; collective identity, Klapp, 1969; Owens
& Aronson, 2000; Johnston, Larana, & Gusfield, 1994; Gam-
son, 1992; commitment to the group, Klandermans, 1997),
and organization al characteristics (e.g., level of centraliza-
tion, routes of communication, relative influence of indi-
viduals on the organization, amount expected of members,
see among others Snow, Zurcher, & Ekland-Olson, 1980). A
community psychology perspective, such as the one shared
by Kagan et al. (Kagan, Castile, & Stewart, 2005; Kagan,
2006, 2007), highlights that there is a potential of stress em-
bedded in the active participation of citizens, which sooner or
later is likely to make individuals quit. In a similar vein, Cox
(2009) elaborated on the notion of emotional sustainability.
Despite the identification of a pool of variables affecting
the persistence of individuals’ civic and political engagement,
to the best of our knowledge, no explanatory models have
been proposed to account for the relationships between the
above mentioned variables or to account for their influence
on activists’ persistence. Inspired by the findings of a previ-
ous qualitative study (Mannarini & Fedi, under review), we
aimed to elaborate and test a model of activists’ retention that
takes into account the individual and the organizational lev-
els. Indeed, the results of our qualitative investigation of a
group of citizens involved in protest movements showed that,
if on the one hand, engagement was underpinned by personal
commitment and satisfaction for the organization’s role
structure, it was eroded on the other by the stress and strain
of a long-term engagement. This is especially the case when
such a stress was not compensated by supportive relation-
ships among fellow members. Hence, we developed a theo-
retical model, according to which commitment to the group
or its cause does affect activists’ persistence. This relation-
ship is mediated by two variables, namely the individual-
organization interface and stress management processes. In
detail, the current study focused on the following variables:
personal commitment to the group/organization (Meyer &
Allen, 1991); stress appraisal and coping strategies (Lazarus
& Folkman, 1984), which can be regarded as a proxy for the
emotional sustainability of engagement; social support (Cobb,
1976), and the individual-group/organization interface, in-
tended as a combination of member-to-member relationships,
role satisfaction, and the subjective evaluation of organiza-
tional functioning.
Affective, Continuance and Normative Commitment
Although commitment has a behavioral side (as behavioral
persistence), researchers’ attention has mainly been drawn to
two factors: 1) the psychological state that characterizes
members’ relationships with their group/organization and 2)
the consequences of their decisions to stay or leave. Follow-
ing Meyer and Allen (1991) and Klandermans (1997), three
types of commitment can be distinguished that are related to
desire, need and obligation to maintain involvement, respec-
tively. Affective commitment is the “partisan, affective at-
tachment to the goals and values, and to the organization for
its own sake, apart from its purely instrumental work” (Bu-
chanan, 1974: p. 533). High levels of affective commitment
make people feel that they want to continue being involved in
the group/organization. Continuance commitment refers to the
perceived costs associated with leaving the organization. The
deeper a person’s involvement is in the organization, the less
visible and attractive are the alternatives to staying with the
organization and the stronger is their commitment. An individ-
ual whose primary link to the group/organization is based on
continuance commitment experiences a need to stay on. Nor-
mative commitment reflects a feeling of obligation to maintain
engagement in a group/organization (Wiener, 1982). It is the
result of both long-term socialization processes and of the in-
ternalization of normative pressures. Individuals with a high
level of normative commitment continue their involvement
because they feel they ought to. For each kind of commitment,
Meyer and Allen (1991) identified antecedents and conse-
quences related to both personal and organizational variables as
well as to past experiences. However, Klandermans (1997) has
defined commitment itself as both antecedent and consequent to
ongoing participation, arguing that the more committed to a
group a person is, the more likely it is that he/she will continue
to participate, and the longer someone participates, the more
committed he or she will become.
Stress Appra is a l and C op ing Stra t eg ies
Community psychologists have highlighted that intensely
committed participation, such as that displayed by community
activists, can be overloading and exhausting and therefore
result in burnout and disruptive relations (Kagan, Castile, &
Stewart, 2005; Kagan, 2006, 2007). They have argued that
participation is not only time and energy consuming, but it is
psychologically demanding and requires both internal and
external resources. For these reasons, while civic or political
engagement can be a source of gratification for engaged indi-
viduals, the risk of dropping out is real. Cox (2009) has pro-
posed the concept of emotional sustainability to refer to the
resources people can use to cope with the stress and strain
experienced in their civic or political engagement. Some ex-
amples of these resources include a strong religious culture,
class or political ethics, a supportive group culture, and emo-
tional management skills (Cox, 2009; Nepstad, 2004). In a
similar vein, Downton and Wehr (1991, 1998) have pointed
out that coping strategies are typical of persistent activists who
have the ability to address issues that can disrupt their own
participation. According to a cognitive approach to stress and
coping (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984), the level of appraisal de-
termines stress levels and coping strategies in which individu-
als partake to reduce the negative impacts of stress on their
wellbeing. A primary appraisal is made when the individuals
make an evaluation of the matter at hand. Then, a secondary
appraisal occurs when they try to manage the event or the
situation that they have perceived as a threat or harm by evalu-
ating the personal and environmental coping resources to
which they can turn. The most common typology of coping
styles (Lazarus & Folkman 1984) includes problem-focused
coping (such as information seeking and problem solving) and
emotion-focused coping (such as expressing emotion and
regulating emotions). Further coping styles that have been
distinguished are avoidance coping (Moos & Billings, 1982)
and social coping (Greenglass, 1993).
Social Support
Social support is utilized by individuals experiencing stress
when they draw on their social network resources. The idea that
social support is a resource that can serve to protect persons
against the adverse impact of a stressful event is at the core of
the so-called buffering hypothesis (Cohen & Wills, 1985). This
hypothesis predicts that people who have little social support
will have negative reactions when they experience high levels
of difficult life events. Moreover, this hypothesis predicts that
people who have high levels of social support will not have as
intense of a negative reaction to difficult life events. However,
Cohen and Wills (1985) suggest that the buffering effect of
social support may be limited by particular individual responses
to stress and peculiar features and processes associated with
changing environments. Scholars such as Greenglass (2002)
have also suggested that social support can be viewed as a form
of proactive coping, and indeed, several scales of coping in-
clude items that measure the search for social support (e.g.,
Coping Strategy Indicator, Amirkhan, 1990; Coping Inventory
of Stressful Situation, Endler & Parker, 1994). The role of so-
cial support in fostering and sustaining collective action has not
been directly addressed. However, indirect indications of its
influence on civic and political engagement are shown in the
studies that have emphasized how the embeddedness in social
networks not only provides a symbolic and material opportu-
nity for mobilization (see Diani, 2005; Mannarini, Roccato,
Fedi, & Rovere, 2009) but also contributes to reducing the costs
associated with engagement (Benson & Rochon, 2004). With a
more explicit argument, Nepstad (2004) suggested that some
community groups intentionally provide cognitive and emo-
tional support during the uncertainties of activism by imple-
menting practices (collective rituals, for instance) that reinforce
members’ commitments.
Individual-Group/Organization Interface
Among the factors that sustain civic and political engage-
ment, the relationships that individuals establish with the
group/organization should also be mentioned. In general, we
can agree that groups that foster the creation and maintenance
of strong ties between group members through interaction have
more possibilities to keep individuals participating in their
group or to strengthen their commitment to the group as a
whole over time (Corrigall-Brown, 2007). Although the en-
gagement in a community group cannot be equated to an ordi-
nary work activity, when involvement persists over a long pe-
riod of time, similarities among community groups and work
organizations increase. Hence, we can assume that as in a
workplace, role and activity satisfaction, as well as a positive
evaluation of the organizational structure and processes, result
in positive feelings about one’s situation (Robbins & Judge,
2007). Such a condition should reasonably make individuals
more willing to stay in their group/organization.
Study Rationale
The study was driven both by the need to advance knowledge
and the need to draw applicative indications for use in the field of
community development. Our investigation was aimed at ex-
ploring the predictive influence of individual and organizational
variables on activists’ persistence in community groups. We first
elaborated and then tested a pattern of relationships between the
main psychosocial variables that the literature identified as con-
tributing to activist retention. The point of departure for develop-
ing the model was the idea that commitment may not be suffi-
cient per se to make activists stay because of the intervention of
more “powerful” process variables, which concern both the spe-
cific experience of individuals as members of a group/organiza-
tion and stress and resource management skills. Hence, we
tested a model according to which the level of personal com-
mitment to the group/organization has a direct influence on
activists’ persistence. At the same time, there is a second path
through which commitment affects persistence, which includes
the mediating role of stress management processes and the
individual-organization interface. The individual-organization
interface is defined as an integrated measure of mem-
ber-to-member relationships, role satisfaction, and the subjective
evaluation of the organizational functioning.
Specifically, we hypothesized the following:
H1 Higher levels of commitment would show a positive direct
impact on persistence but would be weaker than the influence
exerted on the dependent variable by stress management proc-
esses and the individual-organization interface.
H2 Higher stress levels would reduce the probability of persis-
tence, whereas a positive individual organization interface would
increase the probability of being engaged.
H3 Higher levels of commitment would reduce the levels of
perceived stress and lead to a more positive evaluation of mem-
ber-to-member relationships and organizational functioning as
well as to a higher role satisfaction.
H4 Coping strategies and social support from the group/or-
ganization members would help individuals to manage stressful
Participants (N = 278; 43.9% female) were recruited among
active members in a variety of community groups/organizations.
The average age was 40.48 years old (S.D. = 14.62). The ma-
jority of participants were high school graduates (48.5%), fol-
lowed by college graduates (34.3%). As for the types of
groups/organizations in which participants were involved,
28.8% were active in national political movements, 21.9% in
environmentalist groups, 15.5% in civic organizations, 15.8%
in community service groups, 12.2% in local protest move-
ments, and 5.8% in cultural associations.
Participants were contacted either via email (33.4%) or via
the group/organization to which they were committed (66.6%)
and asked to take part in a survey on civic engagement behav-
iors. The former were asked to fill out the online version of a
questionnaire, whereas the latter were asked to complete a pa-
per version of the same questionnaire. The questionnaire took
about 20 minutes to complete.
The data were gathered by means of a self-report question-
naire including the following measures.
To measure the strength of organizational commitment, an
adapted version of the Organizational Commitment Question-
naire (OCQ) by Allen and Meyer (1990) was used. The scale
included three components: affective, normative and continu-
ance commitment. Sample items of the three components were
“I would be very happy to spend the rest of my career with this
organization”, “I do not believe that a person must always be
loyal to his or her organization”, and “I feel that I have too few
options to consider leaving this organization”, respectively. All
24 items of the scale were rated on a scale of 1 to 7 (1 = very
little, 7 = very much).
Stress was measured by an adapted version of the Perceived
Stress Questionnaire (PSQ) by Levenstein, Prantera, Varvo, et
al. (1993). We excluded the items that described a feeling or an
emotional state without reference to a specific domain/ situa-
tion/environment and kept those items that were phrased so as
to include either a reference to the organizational demands (e.g.,
“You feel that too many demand are being made on you”) or to
relationships with co-members (e.g., “You are under pressure
from other people”). Items were measured by a 4-point scale (1
= almost never, 4 = usually).
Coping was measured by the Coping Inventory for Stressful
Situations (CISS) by Endler and Parker (1994). Items were
rated 1 (not at all) to 4 (very much). CISS is a four-factor model
of human coping with adversity that differentiates three types
of coping: emotion-oriented, task oriented, and avoidant. The
avoidant style includes two dimensions: distraction and social
diversion. The 5 items of avoidant social coping (i.e., search for
social support) were dropped because a separate measure for
social support was used.
Social support was measured by an adapted version of the
Multidimensional Scale of Perceived Social Support (MSPSS)
by Zimet, Dahlem, Zimet, & Farley (1988). Items were adapted
so as to refer to the support received by the group/organization
or by co-members (e.g., “I get the emotional help and support I
need from my group” and “My group is a real source of com-
fort to me”). Items were rated on a range from 1 (strongly dis-
agree) to 6 (strongly agree).
To investigate the individual/organization interface (IOI)
participants were asked to respond to 9 ad hoc items rated 1
(strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree); 3 items were formu-
lated to measure the quality of personal relationships (e.g.,
“The climate within the group/organization is collaborative”), 3
to assess the organizational functioning (e.g., “The group/ or-
ganization has an efficient structure”), and 3 to measure role
satisfaction (e.g., “I am satisfied with my role within this
Activists’ persistence was operationalized as a behavior and
measured through two ad hoc items: “How long have you been
staying in this group/organization?” and “How many hours per
week you usually devote to the activities of your group/ organi-
Finally, participants were asked to provide demographic in-
formation (age, gender, education, professional position, and
place of residence).
All the measures used showed good reliability (Cronbach’s
Table 1.
Correlations among measures of commitment, stress, coping, social support, individual-organization interface, persistence, and demographics (gen-
der, age, and educati on).
Age Education OCQ PSQ CISS MSPSS IOI Persistence
Gender (0 = F; 1 = M) .081 .018 –.061 .099 .085 .033 –.035 .030
Age - .043 .037 .031 .002 .149* .104 –.026
Education - –.128* .141* –.043 –.125* –.137* .037
OCQ - –.086 .164* .350** .376** .181**
PSQ - .347** –.173** –.316** .108
CISS - .079 .019 –.048
MSPSS - .607** .236**
IOI - .200**
Note: **Correlation is significant at the 0.01 level (2-tailed). *Correlation is significant at the 0.05 level (2-tailed).
ceived stress (β = –.25) and increased the quality of the indi-
vidual-organization interface (β = .35). As expected, coping
strategies and perceived social support reduced the stress levels
(β = –.71; β = –.41).
alpha: OCQ = .72; PSQ = .83; CISS = .82; MSPSS = .93; IOI
= .83). Correlational analyses of the variables considered (see
Table 1) showed that gender was completely uncorrelated to the
variables included in the study, while age was directly corre-
lated with social support (r = .15). Education was positively but
weakly correlated with stress levels (r = .14), while it was
negatively correlated with commitment (r = –.13), social support
(r = –.13) and the individual-organization interface (r = –.14).
Stress, coping, social support and the individual-organization
interface were moderately correlated with each other. The stron-
gest correlation was found among social support and the indi-
vidual-organization interface (r = .61). As for our dependent
variable, persistence was positively correlated with commit-
ment (r = .18), social support (r = .24) and the individ-
ual-organization interface (r = .20).
Finally, persistence in the group/organization was negatively
affected by the stress perceived (β = –.42) and positively influ-
enced, though moderately, by the individual-organization inter-
face (β = .12). Most remarkably, the direct influence of com-
mitment on persistence was very weak (β = .05), indicating that
activist retention is better explained by the other variables in-
cluded in the model.
To improve the fit of the model, it was necessary to add a
few additional constraints, namely the correlations between
commitment and coping (r = .64), commitment and social sup-
port (r = .66), and social support and persistence (r = .20). The-
se variations did not substantially modify the proposed model,
yet the changes suggested a more complex pattern of relation-
ships between some of the variables considered.
The main purpose of this study was to validate a theoretical
model of activist retention (see Figure 1). The model predicts
that commitment to the group/organization has a direct influ-
ence on activists’ persistence. However, the model also predicts
that there are two variables that exert a greater influence on
persistence, namely stress management processes and the indi-
vidual-organization interface (intended as the result of
co-member relationships, role satisfaction and evaluation of the
organizational functioning), which mediate the relationship
between commitment and the dependent variable. Moreover, as
suggested by the literature on stress, coping and social support,
the model predicts that both coping strategies and social sup-
port affect the stress appraisal process. The theoretical model
was tested through a model of path analysis, shown in Figure 2
(all path coefficients are significant at p = .05). Table 2 shows
the indices of fit of the empirical model. The results of the path
analysis showed that commitment led to a reduction of per-
Our findings provided a general, though partial, frame for
understanding the psychological processes underlying sustained
engagement. All the hypotheses were confirmed, as results
showed that: (H1) commitment is an antecedent of activists’
persistence, but its direct impact is weaker than the impact ex-
erted by stress management processes and a good fit between
the individual and the group/organization; (H2) high stress lev-
els related to daily activities that individuals undertake as
members of a community group reduce the probability that
individuals keep engaging themselves as activists, whereas a
positive individual-organization interface prevents activists
from dropping out; (H3) high levels of commitment affect stress
appraisal and lead to a more favorable evaluation of mem-
ber-to-member relationships and organizational functioning as
well as to a higher role satisfaction; and (H4) coping strategies
and social support from the group/organization help individuals
to manage stressful events.
Persistence Commitment
Coping Social support
Indi vi du al-
These findings enriched and integrated partial evidence that
come from the fields of social movement research and commu-
nity work. Indeed, these results highlighted a pattern of rela-
tionships that showed how a set of psychosocial variables -
hitherto identified as factors that underpin political and civic
engagement (i.e., commitment, stress management processes,
and individual-organization interface)—were related to each
other. In particular, our study supported evidence drawn from
community work (Kagan, Castile, & Stewart, 2005; Kagan,
Figure 1.
The explanatory model of activists persistence.
Figure 2.
The empirical model of activists persistence.
Table 2.
Tests of model fit.
Chi-Square Test of Model Fit
Value 0.268
Degrees of Freedom 2
P-Value 0.875
CFI 0.994
TLI 0.985
RMSEA (Root Mean Square Error of Approximation)
Estimate 0.060
90 Percent C.I. 0.000 0.069
Probability RMSEA .05 0.924
SRMR 0.025
2006, 2007) that emphasized the stressful nature of participa-
tion, especially in highly committed forms of activism. This
evidence emphasizes the pathogenic potential implied in civic
and political engagement and, at the same time, brings to the
fore the risk that active citizens turn into passive citizens.
What tentative conclusions can be drawn from the study? In
terms of application, there are three main indications that derive
from our work and that can be beneficial for organizers, leaders
and social entrepreneurs. First, potential sources of stress could
be detected for those embedded in uncooperative or conflictual
group relationships. This domain could be partially controlled
by promoting interdependence and solidarity among the group/
organization members, thereby making social support (e.g.,
cognitive or emotional support) available.
Second, in addition to individual coping strategies, collective
coping strategies (e.g., collective problem solving, collective
breaks, and external support provided to the group) could be
supported, so that resources that can be used to cope with prob-
lems become accessible to all the group/organization members.
Finally, the fit between the individuals and the organiza-
tion/group could be monitored so that the activity and the role
structure meet the needs of members. Such a condition would
enhance the positive feelings of the members about their situa-
tions, thereby making them more willing to stay and to contrib-
ute to the attainment of collective goals. Although we ac-
knowledge that these actions may not be sufficient to prevent
active citizens from withdrawing, they can possibly make their
engagement more sustainable.
We are aware of the limitations of our findings. We ac-
knowledge that our model included only some of the factors
that sustain civic and political engagement and did not consider
the influence of any variables external to the group/organization.
Indeed, we focused our analysis mainly on the individual and
organization levels, leaving in the background the relationships
between the group/organization and the community and the
relationship between individuals and the larger community. We
are also aware that our results, on the one hand, apply to a small
sample of active citizens and, on the other hand, do not distin-
guish among the different types of community groups to which
the individuals belong. As a research perspective, we do believe
that the proposed model should be tested within homogenous
groups of active citizens so as to identify similar or differenti-
ated patterns of activist retention. Moreover, it would be rea-
sonable to test the validity of a circular relationship linking
commitment to activist persistence. As suggested by Klander-
mans (1997), commitment may lead individuals to participate
in a group, but their participation is likely to reinforce their
commitment to the group, as in a virtuous circle.
In conclusion, our study was a first step toward a systematic
comprehension of the factors that sustain the civic and political
engagement of community members and prevent them from
withdrawing into the private sphere. As community psycholo-
gists, it is our opinion that activist retention stands out as a
relevant concern both for scholars investigating the dynamics of
community and for professionals who work in the field of
community development.
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