Effective lay leaders are not born into their positions and skills are not acquired by people who donate funds to non-profit organizations. There are some people who intuitively develop people-to-people skills, however, the transition from being a natural leader to a skilled volunteer leader can be the result of participating in a dynamic leadership development program. Often professionals are faced with a dilemma of how to involve devoted and enthusiastic donors in board and committee processes without driving them away with the bureaucratic procedures.
Voluntary organizations seek to build their board of directors so they are representative of the community. Often they are composed of business leaders, professional practitioners, generous and connected philanthropists, as well as activists who are caring and concerned about the people who utilize the agency’s services. The board is structured to provide opportunities for the members to utilize their strengths on behalf of the organization.
The key to a successful board is the quality of the voluntary leadership, on one hand, and the committee structure to facilitate decision-making, on the other hand. The committee chairperson’s role is working with their members to activate them to learn about the agency’s services; to understand the culture of the organization; to experience positive role models in both the committee and the board of directors; and to appreciate the strength of the professional – lay leadership relationship.
An integral part of the educational experience donors and interested community people who join the board of directors is participating in both informal and formal leadership development programs. Occasionally there are people who are successful in their professions and businesses and seem to be resistant to these programs sponsored by non-profit organizations. They question the need to “learn” about making decisions when they have been so adept in accomplishing so much in their own lives.
Leadership development programs need to build on the participants’ competencies and have to involve people in stimulating and creative activities. A combination of traditional classes, experiential workshops, and retreats need to be employed so the activities are intellectually stimulating and strengthen the commitment to the organization. Whenever a program is developed the purpose needs to be clearly defined, the goals have to be stated, and the time frame is known from the outset.
Following the completion of a program the participants should be able to identify what they learned and how they can utilize the experience in their on-going volunteer work with the organization. Enthusiastic lay leaders are the best role models for their colleagues on the board of directors, and they carry out their responsibilities in a way that encourages others to be involved and assume greater responsibilities.
The bottom line is that learning how to be an effective lay leader and conducting the business of the agency should be fun and enjoyable. The major challenge facing both professionals and lay leaders in leadership development is to combine these two most important elements. The success of the organization and the strength of the board depend on having skillful, competent, and committed leadership.
Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W. is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Leadership and Philanthropy Program and has a private consulting firm focused on strengthening non-profit organizations and their leadership for tomorrow. Stephen is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.