Helping working boards work better. Here’s a start.


Is your organization all-volunteer? Does it only have one or two staff?

If so, then it’s likely that your board members, in addition to their governing role at board meetings, also fill staff roles.

These boards are often described as “working” boards –though hopefully all of your boards and board members work!

Working boards are often quite successful  finding volunteers to carry out their direct service program activities. It shouldn’t be terribly hard to recruit volunteers to cut trail, recruit speakers or serve meals.After all, it is enthusiasm for the cause that stokes the passion of these volunteers.

But raise money? Put out the newsletter? Serve as the IT department? Process the mail?

Who wants to volunteer for those jobs?

How do you find volunteers for the work that isn’t universally viewed as fun? That’s why in most large organizations, these are the jobs staff are paid to do. And even paid staff moan about the difficulty of getting volunteers to participate in fundraising.

So, here are six tips to help all volunteer organizations accomplish important administrative and fundraising tasks.

1. Assign each board member and each committee a concrete goal to achieve.

You’ve got real work to accomplish — money to raise, memberships to renew, programs to deliver.

So don’t hand fuzzy assignments to people or committees.  If you need the fundraising committee to raise $25,000, make that their assignment. If you’ve got five open slots on the board, make sure that the board development or nominations committee is given the task of finding five excellent new board members.

In all volunteer organizations, never recruit board members “at-large.” Instead, recruit every board member that you expect will also do staff work for a purpose and give them an assignment. And by that I mean a significant outcome they are responsible for delivering.

2. Stop dumping everything on the board president. And conversely, board presidents, please ask for help.

Too frequently, all of the critical jobs in an all volunteer organization default to the board chair or president. Because we expect our presidents to be super humans, they don’t have the time to define volunteer jobs, find recruits or structure committee assignments. So they find it easier to “do it myself.’ How often have you heard that said! (I’ve even said it)

So, I find that a board development committee is a great asset even in an all volunteer organization. Think of that committee as the board and the organization’s human resource department. Share with them the responsibility of building a great board… and great committee volunteers.

 3. Make volunteer jobs manageable.

The “other-duties-as-assigned” catch-all is maybe okay if you are paying staff. But it’s really hard to recruit unpaid volunteers into such open ended assignments.

Here’s an example. If you are chairing a conference committee,  recruit an able team and split up the work. Make one person  responsible for recruiting the speakers, someone else responsible for booking the facilities, another person for day-of logistics. I’ll bet that after two or three organizing  meetings, your committee won’t even need to meet face-to-face. You can hold phone or email meetings to check in that everyone is on track.

4. Recruit volunteers who have technical expertise, high standards of personal responsibility and can manage themselves.

All-volunteer boards can’t afford too many volunteers who need a lot of hand holding. That’s not to say that you don’t need to train new people to get them off to a good start (which is where committees come in). But make sure that the most important outcomes go to people you know will get the job done. It is okay to set high expectations and not to settle for any warm body.

5. Don’t assume that administrative, finance and fundraising tasks are never fun.

One of our problems in finding recruits is that we start out with the idea that these are loathsome tasks. And we recruit with that idea in mind.

But lots of people make a living — one they even enjoy — doing these jobs. Or would like to learn these skills. Some tasks are unique to nonprofits but others may be comparable to jobs in the for-profit sector. You’ll just need to train your volunteers in the special cultural and legal requirements of nonprofits.

6. Oh yes, have fun. And please thank your volunteers.

No one wants to keep coming back to an organization that doesn’t appreciate the help. Or where every task feels like a terrible burden. Make sure to take the time to socialize, celebrate and acknowledge the great work that you are doing.

There are volunteers are out there for you.

You just have to find them and give them something important to do.

P.S. You don’t have to put every volunteer on your board! Some people are very willing to do complex and time consuming tasks only if you promise not to ask them to be on the board.

2 responses to Helping working boards work better. Here’s a start.

  1. Lisbeth Cort

    Great advice and I’ll sure be sharing this list. Dovetails perfectly with my latest blog post on executive directors and board building on Nonprofit Execs on the Edge blog. Thanks for a great post!

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