Enthusiastic Volunteer Leaders Can Be A Challenge

A source of real strength and sustainability for most non-profit organizations comes from the involved and committed volunteer leaders. These are people who identify for a myriad of reasons with the purposes and functions of the agency and the services it provides. They decide they want to give of their time, as well as financial support, and they become very committed to the agency and the services delivered to the community.

Some volunteer leaders are interested in serving on the board of directors while others become active in providing direct services to clients. They demonstrate their dedication through taking on assignments that are in keeping with their interests, skills and abilities. Often volunteer leaders take on a variety of roles and are able to develop themselves as they contribute to the development and strengthening of the organization.

At the same time volunteer leaders can sometimes become “over enthusiastic” and challenge the organization through their efforts to move things forward too fast. Recently a colleague consulted with me about an organization’s desire to rethink the role of the board of directors in their fundraising efforts. Until the present time the board was neither involved in contributing financially on an annual basis nor was it participating in efforts to solicit contributions from other people for the agency. The focus of the board’s work was almost exclusively in the areas of deciding policies and overseeing the overall functioning of the non-profit.

One of the board members decided that it was time for the board to assume some of the responsibility for not only raising funds from contributors and foundations but also participating themselves in providing funds through their own contributions. He told the chairperson of the board that he wanted to make a proposal at the upcoming meeting that all of the members contribute a minimal amount on an ongoing basis. He thought this would change the nature of the board’s involvement and investment and it would then make it easier for board members to encourage other people in the community to support the organization.

What’s the challenge facing us with this volunteer leader’s intention to make this proposal at the next meeting of the board? Although his enthusiasm is a wonderful quality, he does not have an understanding of the importance of a developmental process with the other members of the board of directors. To suggest that the members of the board begin to provide financial support for the organization in a proposal that is not the result of a series of consultations and discussions within the board is leaping too far too quickly. It is possible that people who were asked to volunteer their time to provide advice and guidance in forming policy and providing oversight will respond negatively to a proposal to suddenly open their checkbooks through a decision of the board of directors.

What could have been an appropriate approach to proposing the members of the board beginning to make an annual financial contribution to the non-profit organization?

The key operative concept is the “process” used to introduce and guide the idea through a series of discussions and meetings rather than have it “dropped” into the laps of the board suddenly and without any planning.

Of course there are a number of ways to introduce the board members to contributing annually to the agency. I would suggest the following process would have been appropriate for the organization. It begins with a board member suggesting the idea to the chairperson of the board and for the chairperson to forward it to one of the standing committees, e.g. finance or development. It is also possible to form an ad hoc committee to explore the issue of board members’ financial support of the organization. Once the process is begun then the committee members can initiate researching the issue, sounding out what other boards in the community do, and exploring the issue informally with the other members of the board. When all the “data” is collected the committee should discuss the issue and suggest a policy that seems appropriate for the non-profit.

Prior to a formal vote on the issue or during the working phase the committee should make a report on its process to the board. There should be a discussion reflecting the various perspectives as well as the possible policy changes that could be adopted. This is an important step because it gives the board an opportunity to know what the committee is doing and what the members have learned. It also provides the committee working on the issue with a sense of the board’s thinking and whether they are open to a policy change or they want to continue the status quo.

This “pre-decision making” discussion provides the opportunity for board members to think about their opinions and perspectives. As a result some members’ perspective may be confirmed, however, it also offers members the opportunity to “buy-in” to a policy change. When volunteer leaders share opinions and begin to understand the importance of possibly adopting a new direction it gives them a sense of the broader issues facing the non-profit organization.

After the committee has heard the board’s response in the context of their deliberations they can continue the process and enter the final stages that will lead to their making a recommendation in the near future to the board. When they have formulated the proposed policy then there should be a real sense of how the majority of the board members will respond. Especially when considering a major policy change (like requesting members contribute annually to the organization), it is more productive to have a sense of how the board is likely to respond so the adoption of the new policy strengthens the board and the organization.

Thus, when an enthusiastic volunteer leader decides to introduce a change in the policies or practices of the board of directors it can create greater challenges than expected. It is important to consider the broader picture and to design a way to channel the volunteer leaders commitment in a way that will strengthen both the board of directors and the agency at the same time.

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.