Our seven county Creative Corridor is home to over three thousand registered nonprofit organizations. Most of these are small and rely upon volunteers, rather than paid staff, to manage the organizations. Some intend to remain all-volunteer organizations; others are seeking to grow to a point at which they can hire staff. No matter their intentions for the future, the boards of all volunteer organizations face unique governance and management challenges. Boards for these types of organizations exemplify the term ‘working board’ because they are responsible for both the governance and the management duties within the organization.
While some may dismiss volunteer run organizations as unprofessional or even insignificant, these organizations, and their hardworking volunteers, contribute a great deal to our communities. It not only takes additional time and energy to serve on the board of an all-volunteer organization, it also requires a few additional board skills and abilities to ensure that members are able to lead and manage the organization in a proficient manner.
The Ability to Wear Multiple Hats
Governing an organization and managing an organization are two distinct functions. On a working board for an all-volunteer organization, it’s important that members are clear about which hat they are wearing at any given time. At board meetings, members should don their governance hats as they take on the responsibilities of policy development or determining the long-term plans of the organization.
When the discussion and decisions turn to more operational items, like determining who will update the organization’s website or developing systems to open and process the organization’s mail, then the governance hats are replaced with management hats. It can be helpful to have the board chair note when the group must bring its governance perspective to the discussion and when it should play its management role. Naturally, one role informs the other, but by only wearing one hat at a time, the board is better able to fulfill its responsibilities to both roles.
The Ability to Create and Follow the Organization’s Plan
In every organization it’s critical that all board members are on the same page regarding the purpose and future direction of the organization. It is doubly important in an all-volunteer organization that everyone understands what the organization does, why it does it, and what the plans are for the organization’s future.
Some may worry that a plan, particularly for a new organization, will limit organic growth and creativity, restricting the organization’s abilities to take advantage of opportunities. However, without a plan that clarifies the board’s shared understanding of the best direction for the organization, it’s easy to lose focus and for activities to get off track or be overlooked. This causes confusion inside and outside the organization and limits its effectiveness.
Imagine embarking on a camping trip with a group of people. The group must determine its destination and timeline (governance role). Once these are decided, the group must collectively determine the more mundane aspects of the journey (management role) to ensure that during the trip, there’s enough food, water, and bug spray for everyone. Between determining destination and how many gallons of Bug Soother to pack, the group must also obtain capital resources for the trip—vehicles, tents, and equipment. A plan helps ensure that the camping trip is a success, rather than a misadventure with too few tents and too many granola bars.
Capability to Volunteer for Routine Tasks
Once the board has determined the organization’s plan, it needs people who will manage the plan and run the organization. In volunteer run organizations, this falls to board members and other volunteers. This requires a group of people with a range of skills. This also requires board members willing to commit the time and energy necessary to not only govern the organization, but to manage it as well. It’s important to clarify these expectations when recruiting new members to the board.
Serving on the board for a volunteer run organization can be a rewarding experience. However, it requires people with the time, energy, and the additional skills necessary to govern and manage the organization. Board members must have the ability to wear multiple hats in the organization, be willing to develop—and follow—an organizational plan, and have the skills necessary to perform the routine tasks to run the organization. When recruiting members for your all-volunteer organization, carefully consider if prospective board members have the skills, as well as the time and energy, to commit to the work.