Managing Volunteers – Part 3 – The Volunteer Board of Directors

Organizations that are governed by a volunteer based Board of Directors have their own brand of ‘volunteer issues’.   In previous postings we talked about organizations with Volunteer Labor.  Here we will discuss volunteer Board Members, what makes them tick, and how to create an environment that attracts and keeps your most valuable players.

Why do people volunteer to be on a Board of Directors?

There are various reasons why people will volunteer to be on a board of directors for an organization.   Boards are a long time commitment.  It is not like volunteering to collect tickets for 2 hours at the school play.  Most people can do that without a really strong commitment to the organization.  Board members believe in the purpose of the organization and what it is there to accomplish.  They are therefore willing to make the time commitment required.

Given that they believe in the purpose of an organization, what else drives them to commit their time and energy to a particular board of directors?  There are various reasons.  Some are good and some of them are not.  Here are some to look for when choosing new board members:

1.  They feel that they have a talent to contribute to the board.  A strong Board is made up of individuals who have various talents which complement each other.  Once the member is on the Board, ensure that they are given the opportunity to use their strengths.  It makes the member feel needed and that they are using their time in a way that is useful.

2.  They want to see the organization move forward based on their own concept of how things should work.  This can be a double edged sword.  Bringing change to an organization can help the organization to move forward and grow.  It can also bring disruption and chaos.  If someone is presenting ideas of change and upheaval before they are nominated, consider carefully if this is just the change you have been looking for, if you are ready for it, or if there might be a better candidate for your board at this time.

3.  It looks great on their resume.  Watch out for this one.  All Board members need to contribute.  Just being on the Board does not help.  All Board members need to contribute something in the form of ideas and action.

4.  It gives them high profile exposure to more people.  This only works in favor of the member if they are able to showcase their talent.  If all they do is sit on the board and do not contribute, their exposure will highlight their weaknesses instead of their strengths.

A bit of advice to those who are looking to join a Board of Directors:  Make sure you are dedicated to the cause, and be prepared to put in time, energy, and talent over the course of your tenure on the Board.  If this doesn’t sound like something you can commit to, then do the organization a favor and let someone else fill the seat.

How do you attract and retain quality board members?

1.  It is essential that the purpose of the organization is clear.  Don’t assume that everyone knows what the organization or the board is there to accomplish and its reason for existence.  People get their own ideas about what they think an organization should be doing.  Make sure that the board members are crystal clear about the purpose of the organization.  If they have other ideas, goals, or ambitions, then they need to find a different organization that will fulfill those ideals for them.

A clear purpose helps to set boundaries within which to work.  Setting boundaries for an organization does not mean inhibiting creativity or new ideas.  These are certainly welcome and essential to moving things forward.   The boundaries ensure that the purpose of the organization is being fulfilled.  They help the board to decide if new ideas are helping them to further their purpose or if they are getting outside of what they are chartered to accomplish.

2.  Accomplishments are well defined and easy to describe.  When volunteering time, people want to know that they are helping to make a difference.  Don’t assume that everyone can see what has been accomplished over the past month, quarter, or year.  Knowing the goals for the future allows people to see how they are going to contribute.  It keeps them interested and involved in the organization.

3.   Respect the time of all board members.  Most board members are busy people.  They typically have a ‘day job’, whether it be business related or raising a family.  They have taken their time away from their family to dedicate time for a cause.  It is important to respect their time.  How do you do this?

    • Have an agenda for every meeting.
    • Start the board meetings on time.
    • Stay on track.
    • If there is no apparent reason for the meeting, then don’t meet OR, make the meeting about figuring out what else the board can be doing to improve the organization.
    • Have tele-meetings when appropriate.  Only have one or two issues to discuss or vote on?  Consider meeting via the phone lines.

4.  Ensure that the Bylaws are clear and Understood by all members.  The bylaws are there to give the organization direction and boundaries within which to function.  It is important that all members of the board have read the bylaws and understand how they guide the organization.  Disagreeing with the bylaws and going off and doing things outside of them is not an option.  Board members that disagree with the bylaws are probably not good candidates for the board.  A good member who sees where a change could benefit the organization needs to go through the process of getting an official change made to the bylaws (this process should be stated in the bylaws).

Volunteers on a Board of directors will continue to serve when everyone is working together.  Following the bylaws means that everyone knows the boundaries within which to work.  Good members will leave a board if things start to run in a loose and undirected fashion.

How do you create a board where everyone is sharing responsibility? 

Have you ever been on a board where a couple of people end up doing most of the work and others seem to not be contributing?  I have seen this far too often.  Why does this happen?  Here are some things to look at:

1.  One or two people are more extraverted and ready to jump in to volunteer before the others get a chance to even think about it.  If this seems to be the case, those that are doing all of the work need to take a step back and consider how their behavior may be impacting the ability of others to contribute.  Remember, we all have different ways of viewing the world and responding to it.  Others may need more time to understand a situation or to know whether a task is suitable to their talents.  They may even need to be asked to take on a particular task or if they can do it with the help of another.

2.  Know the talents and gifts of your board members.  People like to contribute from their strengths.  Don’t expect everyone to be happy about doing every task that comes along.  Figure out their strengths and what they enjoy doing.  Make sure they are aware of a task that comes along that they would enjoy taking on.

3.  Choose and recruit your board members wisely.  Look at the talents that are missing on the up-coming board and seek out someone who can bring that to your board.  Having a whole board of people good with numbers will not move your group forward.  Neither will one filled with visionaries or sales people.   You need a balance of many talents to form a really strong board.

If you find yourself saying, “But, but, but… I had to do it.  No one else was stepping up to the plate.” Consider this:

Why would people volunteer to be on a board and then not want to contribute?  If they truly just want to show up to be seen, then you have the wrong person on your board.  It is a privilege to be on a board.  If you are in a situation where you are begging people to be on your board instead of choosing those that would benefit the organization, then there is a more serious core problem. Go back to some basics, as outlined in the section about “Why do people volunteer”.  See if any of these points sparks something in you that could be of help.

Consider a special board ‘retreat’ to focus on the board and how it functions.  This is about the board, not about the organization.  It is a time to be honest with the other board members and to express what is working and what is not working.  It is a good time to see how to strengthen the board as an organization.  I highly recommend that you bring in an outside person to facilitate the discussion and to help you to set up an agenda and expectations ahead of time.

Summary – Part Two

Volunteer Boards can be very rewarding.  Realizing that volunteers usually contribute with different standards than paid members is important to setting up a successful board.  Having the structure of a clearly defined purpose and a good set of by-laws is your first step to success.  Utilizing the talents of your members not only makes the volunteer happy, but it also benefits the organization.  Finding the balance between structure and allowing each member to contribute their gifts is the key to turning your board from good to great.

If you have been a volunteer yourself you can probably relate to the concepts brought out in this series of blog posts.  Whether looking to recruit volunteers to help you, or looking to improve your board of directors, there are a few things that seem to be common to volunteers:

They want to make a difference

They want their time and talents to be respected

They want to be appreciated

Establishing an environment to satisfy these three things is the key to running a successful volunteer organization.

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