The partnership between the professional staff and the volunteer leadership only works when the board of directors has a sense of their ownership of the non-profit organization. What does ownership mean? How do volunteer leaders develop a sense of ownership? What are the limits of their involvement in the organization? During the last several months I have received comments from readers about understanding the role of the volunteer leadership and their place in the non-profit organization. I would like to address these inquiries in this posting.
When we speak of the board of directors we are referring to people who are fully engaged and are committed to developing and strengthening the organization. The major responsibilities of the board are to set policy; to provide fiscal oversight; to cultivate political support in the community; and to enhance the financial sustainability of the agency. In order to fully achieve success the board members have to have a clear understanding of their roles. They must have specific tasks that have to be performed over the course of their involvement in the non-profit.
A key element in providing clarity for the members of the board is the organization’s “by-laws”. The document spells out not only the purpose and mission of the non- profit but also provide the structure for the board of directors. The officers of the organization are listed and their major responsibilities are defined. The by-laws state specific requirements about the length of the board members’ term of office and what the minimal expectations for attendance at meetings and involvement with the organization.
For example, if an organization has 10 scheduled board meetings a year, members would be expected to attend no less than 8 of the meetings. Some by-laws even state that a member who attends less than the minimum number of meetings will be asked to leave the board. It will also list the standing committees of the organization and give specific requirements for the number of committees a board member must be available to join each year.
The purpose of these requirements is to clearly state what is expected of the members of the board and to approve minimal standards for the board’s work during the year. Of course there are those people who say, “If I set standards and minimal requirements for serving on committees and board attendance then no one will agree to be on the board.” This statement has been made by both executive directors/CEO’s as well as veteran volunteer leaders.
Unfortunately we often sell ourselves short. What does this mean? Instead of establishing standards that are clearly articulated, more often than not, the founding members of an organization will be afraid to make demands on board members and in the name of being “flexible” they will be somewhat vague about what is expected of members of the board. This is done with the hope of attracting “important and influential” people in the community to identify with the organization and join the board.
The result of this approach is having a group of people who attend board meetings once a month (or less frequently). Their perception is that they are working for the best interest of the organization by attending these meetings. They are happy to come for two hours and have a cup of coffee and share their opinions. However, both the organization and the board members are missing out on a very valuable and interesting opportunity.
Maintaining an active, involved and committed board is not easy to attain, however, it can be fun and productive both for the agency and the board. It means there has to be a clear understanding of the role of the board and the members. The expectations have to be clearly stated and the responsibilities of the members have to be understood by both the board and individual members. For example, it is not uncommon to have people elected to the board for a term of 2 or 3 years and for there to be a maximum of 2 or 3 consecutive terms for all members. Once someone has served their maximum number of years they are rotated off the board.
One of the most important aspects of the involvement in the board’s activities is having fun. Fun is part of fundraising! Working for the organization’s financial sustainability is one of the most challenging functions of the board. It can either be a burden or a blessing. If the members of the financial resource development committee (otherwise called the fundraising committee) have a good time doing what they are doing then other people will want to join them. If it is perceived as an “arduous thankless job” that no one wants because it is a drag then it will be impossible to interest others in joining to increase the agency’s financial base. The content of the committee’s work and the way it implements its work should be creative, involving and raise peoples’ spirits as well as their contributions.
When the right structure is in place and when the board members understand what is expected of them then there is a better chance of the board working effectively in the partnership with the chief executive officer and the professional staff. We may think it is better be vague about what we expect from board members so we can attract more people. It is essential that we maintain standards for the expectations we have for members of the board. The higher we reach, the more we will stretch ourselves, and the greater the chance of achieving everything we set out to do both for our clients and the community.
Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Leadership and Philanthropy Program and has a consulting firm focused on strengthening non-profit organizations and their leadership for tomorrow. Stephen is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.