Mother, Please, I Would Rather Do It Myself: The Role of Delegating Responsibilities in the Nonprofit Organization

Some of you reading this headline may remember a TV commercial for a headache remedy that ran in North America some years back. It showed an adult daughter who is focused on cooking a meal for her family, but is suffering from a terrible headache. When her mother approaches her to offer some assistance, the daughter turns to her and says, “Mother, please, I would rather do it myself.”

How many of us have worked with people who give us the same message when we attempt to be helpful? How many of us work with directors, managers, and supervisors who, instead of delegating responsibilities, always let us know that they can do it better themselves? This is a challenge for both professional staff and volunteer leaders. Although I am discussing the relationship between professionals here the same could be said of the way volunteer leaders work with other volunteers, i.e., board presidents with board members or committee chairpersons with their members.

When we try and assist others in an organization we sometimes feel rebuffed by their somewhat selfish approach to what needs to be done. These staff members may view our offer of help as interfering in their work, rather than as a means of enhancing what we are all doing together – providing better services to the community.

Delegation is a key aspect of good administrative practice! It means not only allowing people to assist in the tasks that others are doing but, more importantly, is also focused on allowing staff members to assume responsibility for implementing a policy or program and seeing it through to its conclusion. It does not mean a lack of supervision or accountability, but rather that the focus of the oversight is on enabling staff to perform their responsibilities successfully and develop skills in the process.

Delegation does not mean hands-off. It is having faith in another person’s skill and abilities and trusting him or her to complete a task with a sense of responsibility and competence that reflects the agency’s dedication to the highest level of professional service. The key is the director, supervisor, or manager being able to let go of the minute-to-minute micro-management and to enable someone else to assume the responsibility to do what has to be done. That task may not be done in the same way that the person assigning it would do it, but the manager needs to feel comfortable with that difference.

For everyone does not always do the same job in the same way, and sometimes people even make mistakes. This is part of any new professional’s learning curve; making mistakes is sometimes necessary to sharpening one’s professional skills. A good manager allows staff members to make mistakes.

Delegation of responsibilities not only strengthens each individual staff member’s skills but also the organization as a whole. When the executive establishes a culture of delegating responsibilities, then it frees him or her to deal with other issues and not be concerned with implementing every decision that is made by the board or staff. A culture of delegation of responsibilities encourages the staff to use their own initiative and develop their own approach for dealing with challenges and problems.

Staff members’ creativity is also fostered by their sense of being responsible for a program or project. This sense of responsibility strengthens their feeling of ownership and connection to what they are working on and developing. A sense of professional pride accompanies their being responsible for their work and not feeling that they are just implementing what someone else in the organization wants accomplished.

In addition, when staff members are treated with respect and given some autonomy in the areas for which they are responsible, they do the same with the people they may supervise. The culture of delegation builds upon itself. Anyone who has administrative responsibility for supervising other staff members will build this approach into their professional practice and their relationships with subordinates in the organization.

Over time, as the executive and board president reinforce the dynamic of delegating responsibilities in the organization, this approach will be integrated into and become standard practice in the administration of programs, supervision of staff and work with volunteer leadership. Giving the staff a feeling of the importance of their involvement in the organization and their efforts in strengthening the organization will create a very positive and creative atmosphere among the employees and volunteer leaders. In turn this atmosphere will not only have a direct positive impact on the agency’s board, programs and services but will also permeate everything the agency does and the espirit de corps of its staff and volunteer leadership.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Nonprofit Management and Leadership Program. Stephen was Director of the Israel office of the Council of Jewish Federations (CJF), 1986-94, and Director of the Israel office of UJA Federation of New York, 1994-2008.