It takes a lot of people-power to accomplish the work of our nonprofits. Staff, volunteers, and, for the tiniest of organizations, their “working boards.”
You’ve probably heard that expression. I hear it frequently: “we’re a working board.”
Guess what? All boards have work.
In virtually all of our charitable nonprofits, our board members are likely to wear two hats:
- the hat covering their fiduciary and governing responsibilities.
- the hat covering their volunteer, or staff-like tasks.
What is the work of the board?
Governing responsibilities are about setting direction and overseeing the well-being of the organization and its mission. These can’t be delegated away. For example,
- approving the big vision
- ensuring guiding strategy
- setting and monitoring the policies that guide organizational work
- defining the values everyone lives by
- defining the metrics that measure success
- asking the critical questions about impact, community changes, what’s coming down the pike
- making tough decisions about priorities and resource allocations
- organizing the board, from creating the standard of board excellence to determining the processes that bring people on board, train them, set meeting and decision standards and more.
- Choosing and providing feedback to the CEO or leadership staff team, acting as their strategic partner and letting go of them when they are no longer serving the organization’s needs
- overseeing required public reporting and accountability.
What are some staff or staff-like tasks? These are the things that if your organization had the money, you would likely pay a professional person to do. Tasks like:
- raising revenues and caring for donors
- running all aspects of events
- caring for facilities
- running programs
- keeping the books, paying the bills
- marketing, communications and promotion
- media relations
- managing the staff
- recruiting volunteers
So what do people mean when they say they have a working board?
Organizations say they have a working board when they have no or few staff and board members are usually the folks filling most of the staff functions. Or they may have staff but the board keeps some particular function for itself.
Board meetings get all muddled up by combining the work of governing and the work of managing (or staff work).
Staff work also gets neglected or done ineptly when no one person (or team) is in charge but everyone — the board — is in charge.
Here are a few suggestions to enable better work from your working boards.
These are some suggestions to get you started.
1.Divide up your board meetings. Be clear about what items on the agenda are governing work and what items on the agenda are really a staff meeting. You might even want to set them up as two meetings. One that’s the board following all of its bylaws procedures. When that adjourns, then open the staff meeting. You might not even need all the board members present for that if there is no work that involved them.
2. Be clearer than ever as to the goals that have to be accomplished, who is responsible for accomplishing them, and what authority the board has delegated to those people. This can save countless hours having the full board arguing over the cost of an event ticket or venue.
3. Recruit volunteers for staff work beyond the board. I say this often, most volunteers would rather not be on the board. I happen to find the work of governing very fulfilling. But those folks who like running a community meal site, or teaching a workshop, or working with their hands don’t often want to be on the board.
4. Recruit board members as managers of critical functions in the organization. Give them something they are accountable to the board for achieving. That might be raising the budget dollars, ensuring a years worth of membership programs are carried out, or serving as stewardship manager for your properties. They don’t do this alone.. they can recruit volunteers to be on their committees. But every board member should have a job and outcome that he or she is responsible for achieving.
What else have you found to work well in your working boards? Love to hear from you.
I’m concerned that the word Volunteer may be limiting our ability to recruit some very needed assistance.
If I had to wager a guess, I’d bet that when most people hear the word Volunteer they are likely to think of direct service — like building a house for a deserving family, or serving meals at a soup kitchen, or cutting trails or dragging debris out of a river on Earth Day.
At first glance I was somewhat surprised that fundraising was at the top of the list of US volunteer activities given the number of complaints I hear from nonprofits about their inability to recruit volunteers to help them raise funds.
- Are volunteers a finite or infinitely renewable natural resource?
- Does each nonprofit have an obligation to our whole sector to create satisfying experiences that regenerate volunteers?
- Are poor volunteer practices not only driving people away from the offending organization but also souring volunteers against any volunteer service in the future?
These are some of the questions provoked by an intriguing article in the article “It Ain’t Natural: Toward a New (Natural) Resource Conceptualization for Volunteer Management” in the August 2009 edition of Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly .
While the title screams academia, the ideas raised by the authors Jeffrey L. Brudney of Cleveland State University and Lucas C. P. M. Meijs of Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University, deserve serious discussion and wide exposure within our sector.
Citing a a study done by the Corporation for National and Community Service, Brudney and Meijs warn that “a staggering one in three Americans evidently dropped out of volunteering between 2005 and 2006.” They note that other studies document similar problems in other countries.
The authors suggest that nonprofits in general are too preoccupied with recruiting volunteers and don’t pay enough attention to retaining them.
I’m sure you’ve heard someone lament (and maybe even have said it yourself): “we can’t find enough good volunteers.”
What if, the authors suggest, instead of treating “volunteer energy” as a resource with an inexhaustible supply, we perceived volunteers as a resource that could actually run out?
How would our behavior need to change?
I find this concept incredibly intriguing, especially because it fits very nicely into my”we’re all in this together” framework of civil society.
Imagine that you are a first time volunteer. You’ve been thinking about doing something good for your community so you’ve found your way to a volunteer job through family, friend or volunteer center. You’re excited, but a little unsure of your role and how you might contribute.
It’s likely that it may take quite a while before you hear from the organization at all. Or, they contact you quickly but they don’t really have any volunteer needs right now. No one takes the time to find out what skills you have or what else you might have to offer.
Or maybe they have a job, but in reality it is pretty undefined. You are assigned to a staff member (or another volunteer) who simply doesn’t have the time to train you and makes you feel as if you are in their way. You never really get a good idea of what you should be doing or how to Read more