We Get the Volunteer Leaders We Deserve

An agency cannot blame anyone other than itself if its board is a passive, low-functioning group of individuals who merely occupy their positions and leave the decision making to a few people who exercise authority inappropriately.

by Stephen G. Donshik

I would like to paraphrase the French political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) and say, “In nonprofit organizations we get the leadership we deserve.” Ideally boards of directors of nonprofit organizations function in a democratic way. Board members are elected to their positions and serve for a specified number of years, and ideally the committee structure functions in a way that empowers the board members to make decisions that are in the best interest of the organization.

In response to last week’s column on the “The Triumph of Politics Over Practice” that focused on the politics among the staff, a comment was posted on the website and additional comments were sent to my personal e-mail account. These readers made the point that politics in nonprofit organization is not limited to the professional staff and can be found among the volunteer leaders. There was even a question about whether the boards of directors and the committee structure of many nonprofits actually exercise a system of “checks and balances.”

Although these comments raised important points, I maintain that the board does has the ability to deal with its members who inappropriately use their position to exercise power over the policies and practices of the nonprofit organization or who act in a dictatorial fashion.

In addition to the officers of the board there are chairpersons of various committees – both standing committees and those focused on specific, time-limited issues that are disbanded once their issue is handled. For example, a finance committee is usually a standing committee, and a committee planning a special event will cease functioning once the event has been successfully implemented and the thank-you letters have been sent to all involved.

The board president in relation to the chairs of the committees – and those chairs in relation to the committee members – have the responsibility to monitor how each person is carrying out his or her responsibilities and how the committees are functioning. If a chairperson or committee member is either acting in an inappropriate way with staff or with fellow lay leaders, or is exercising too much authority in deciding the direction or focus of the committee, then those issues must be addressed.

Part of the leadership’s obligation is to ensure that all members of the board have an opportunity to participate in discussions and to share their opinions and perspectives. Dictatorial behavior is not only inappropriate for a board but it is also destructive to the board’s attempt to fulfill its responsibilities in overseeing the functions of the nonprofit organization. The best way to prevent this behavior is for an agency to have an authentic leadership development program that focuses on enabling volunteer leaders to attain the skills they need to implement an effective governance process.

Along with an authentic leadership development program, the agency needs to set minimum standards for orienting and training new board members. An intensive seminar or series of weekly sessions can be developed to provide basic knowledge about the way the board works and how its decision-making process functions.

Leadership development and orientation programs are important not only to accomplish the work that is necessary to sustain the organization but also to empower board members to take responsibility for how they work together. Presentations and discussions on the board decision-making process and the role of board members in that process provide a baseline of knowledge of what is expected of board members and how they should work together to provide oversight of the voluntary organization. When there is clarity about the responsibilities of each committee and each board officer in the decision-making process, then it is less likely that a dictatorial leader will emerge or that individual volunteer leaders will use their positions inappropriately.

An additional component can be added to strengthen the volunteer leadership: a mentoring program for new board members and committee chairs. It would entail recruiting either senior members of the board or past board members to volunteer their time to aid new members or chairpersons in developing leadership skills. The mentoring program would also provide an opportunity to keep veteran leadership involved in the organization and allow them to share their knowledge and skills with new people who are taking up the leadership positions.

Unfortunately, all too often people are placed on boards with the assumption that they understand their role and function as board members. When they lack this knowledge, the board does not work effectively, and the inappropriate use of leadership positions occurs. The more the board is empowered to take responsibility for the way it works, the more there will be a built-in system of checks and balances. The leaders will monitor themselves and will not tolerate any excessive use of power over the board’s work.

If the board decides to leave the governance to a small group of people or to a single volunteer leader and not to invest in the development and grooming of active, involved, and committed volunteer leaders, then it does “get the leadership it deserves.” An agency cannot blame anyone other than itself if its board is a passive, low-functioning group of individuals who merely occupy their positions and leave the decision making to a few people who exercise authority inappropriately. Let us hope that our organizations will invest in leadership development, with the understanding that it is an essential part of the process of creating and sustaining a viable and high-functioning organization that encourages the development of skillful, knowledgeable, and committed volunteer leaders.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Nonprofit Management and Leadership Program and has a consulting firm focused on strengthening nonprofit organizations and their leadership for tomorrow. Stephen is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.