Celebrating the Lay-Staff Relationship

insideby Marci Mayer Eisen

In our desire for friendships and community, it’s natural to categorize people from our closest friends to casual associations. We refer to longtime connections as “old” friends. You might have youth group friends, fraternity brothers or those with whom you shared a special experience. As our networks expand, it’s common to hear references to work friends or neighbors. In recent years, with the explosion of social media, many reference a “Facebook friend,” loosely interpreted as someone you keep in contact with only by following their posts.

For many nonprofit professionals, there is an additional category of friendship that holds significant meaning. I am referring to the professional friendships we have with our committee and board volunteers, frequently referred to as “my lay leaders.” It’s interesting how we use the possessive phrase, “she was my lay leader,” or “he was one of my committee members.” These relationships feel special.

Volunteer leaders are not the friends we socialize with on a Saturday evening or invite to our homes. Rather, they are our “partners” in the work of community. We are keenly aware that these friendships have boundaries. While closeness develops, the core purpose of the relationship is not to meet our own needs, but rather to serve our organizations. Yet, many of these relationships over time become some of the most important people in our lives, with some lay-staff partnerships spanning years, even decades.

The conversation is not intimate, although the dialogue can be deep and meaningful. We discuss how to impact our organization. We talk about passions, values, and concerns for community and humanity. We dialogue about leadership styles, priorities and our abilities to engage others. Then, we struggle together with current challenges and get excited about new endeavors. And, at our best, we openly acknowledge the tension and differing opinions necessary for community change.

Unfortunately, significant research on the topic of nonprofit organizations emphasizes the negative aspects of working with volunteer leaders – miscommunication, differing expectations, confusion about roles and unfulfilled objectives. The relationship between the CEO/executive director and his or her board is further complicated by the fiduciary responsibility of the board to provide oversight and evaluate the senior professional. While I’ve read articles and Facebook posts by former professionals who bemoan a senior lay leader who undermined a decision or left the pro feeling unappreciated, I believe these experiences are few and far between.

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to personally interview more than 100 professionals and lay leaders about job and volunteer satisfaction. Volunteers engaged at the highest levels said their relationships with professionals was the number one influence on their continued involvement and long-term satisfaction. Similarly, for most professionals, relationships with lay leaders were expressed as an added benefit and integral to a meaningful career.

Volunteers will step forward – at all levels – when they trust that the staff person will work together on a shared vision, provide consistent support, challenge assumptions and always share accountability. One of the greatest sources of pride for a professional is when a former volunteer advances to greater communal responsibilities, both within the Jewish community and in the community-at-large.

The lay-staff partnership is distinct and the benefits are numerous. As I previously wrote in “Where Did Our Farm Teams Go?,” we invest in volunteer leadership because it is central to community building and long-term commitments. While I don’t always remember the details of a program or project I worked on years ago, I can tell you who chaired the experience and worked on the committee. It is only because of the time, creativity, energy and follow-through of both professional and volunteer leaders that our nonprofits exist. These are true partnerships.

For these relationships, I am grateful.

Marci Mayer Eisen is the Director of the Millstone Institute for Jewish Leadership, a community-wide initiative of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis and the staff person for JProStl, a active local Jewish professional association affiliated with JCSA.