Making Our Volunteers, Our Partners

By Eric Lankin

I vividly remember being dressed down by the senior resource development professional after a conference call of volunteers who were leaders of one of our fundraising campaigns. “How dare you ask a question of our volunteers during the call” was his angry statement. I was baffled. My question was an innocent request for additional information that anyone with the title “Campaign Chair” would have known.

As a Jewish communal professional, I should have known better. In this organization, the volunteer campaign chair was given the title “Campaign Chair” as a result of the level of his previous or accumulated financial gifts. He was prepared to read a report written by the professional for his campaign. He was not knowledgeable or responsible for any of the details and therefore, totally unprepared to participate in a simple discussion of the topic. I should have realized that asking a question of a volunteer leader was out of bounds in that organization and it was a sign of my inexperience about the system.

Some of our most prominent organizations like it that way. Instead of expecting volunteers to be knowledgeable participants in the business of communal leadership and real partners in contributing their experience, the professionals often hand them scripts of speeches to be delivered. I have written countless speeches over the years and drafted countless reports for volunteers, and the expectation of the volunteers was that this engaged content was to be ghost written for them.

It doesn’t have to be that way. When a Jewish organization can be described functioning like the story above, it is wasting tremendous talent and resources so needed because leadership in communal organizations is increasingly complicated and dependent on a team effort.

We can change the parameters- when we openly share that leadership in our nonprofit is hard and often time-consuming, when we are soliciting potential board members. Sure, sharing that truth often turns potential volunteers off but also excites others because they appreciate being taken seriously and opinions truly solicited. Many organizations struggle to get volunteers to join their board or a committee and often say “We just need your name” or “It’s an easy job to be on our board.” The result is often counter-productive for the organization because a volunteer who believes that his or her role is minimal, will participate minimally.

Transparency is also key to get volunteers to take leadership seriously. There is nothing more distressing for a volunteer than serving on a board and discovering that the important decisions were already made in the “meeting before the meeting.”

Other volunteers have shared that within some organizations, the professionals control the nonprofit with limited oversight by the Board of Directors. In that case, the fiduciary responsibility of the Board is neglected and that may be also distressing to its volunteer members. When members of the Board are afraid to speak up against a decision of the staff because of fear that they will be overruled by the professional executive and labeled as a “malcontent,” it is a sign of true weakness of such a nonprofit.

Finally, recognizing that financial contributions is an important but not exclusive way to express leadership by volunteers in a nonprofit addresses another challenge. I recognize that many successful nonprofits have a minimum giving level for board membership to make clear the financial responsibilities of leadership in this sector. However, by only focusing on a financial giving level, often committed, hard-working and thinking potential board members are discouraged from serving.

The only real difference between a profit company and a nonprofit organization is that the nonprofit organization is required to reinvest its profits into the organization and not distribute them to its leadership. Although it is true that nonprofits are created for altruistic purposes to benefit the society and community, no successful nonprofit should neglect the capabilities of its volunteers, no different than a private or public company neglecting its Board of Directors. Every nonprofit professional must facilitate and make a place for leadership of its volunteers. Real thinking and actively participating volunteer leadership is a key for a healthy nonprofit.

Rabbi Dr. Eric Lankin is Adjunct Professor in the M.A. Program of Nonprofit Management and Leadership at the Rothberg International School of Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Vice President for International Development for Israel Gives, Ltd. .