Who is the Boss? This Is Not The Question

Decision-making in the non-profit organization (NGO) is not always easy or simple. There are tensions among those who are the professionals and are remunerated for their efforts with a salary and those who are lay leaders and are volunteering their time. Conflicts often arise when there are disagreements concerning policies, practices, financial issues, and a host of challenges that are part of the daily life of an NGO.

In many agencies the chief executive officer (CEO) works very closely with the chair or president of the board, as well as the chair of the finance committee, and other lay leaders that deal with both financial and program issues. When there are adequate funds available the focus of the discussion is usually on how to accomplish the most with the given resources. This allows for creative thinking about expanding programs and reaching more clients who can use the valued services of the organizations.

When funds are very tight due to a slow down in the economic growth of the country and the subsequent cutback in contributions from donors and foundations, then it is more difficult to make the necessary decisions about the use of limited resources. It is not uncommon for there to be differences of opinion in regard to the allocation of limited resources. There will be serious deliberations in various forums including the CEO and the president; the CEO and the executive committee; the CEO and the finance committee; and other venues where discussions are held among the professional and lay leaders.

In the midst of the “give-and-take” process, where there is an exchange of opinions and sharing of ideas, it is not uncommon for one or another of the parties to attempt to “pull rank”. These people might declare they have the right to make the necessary decisions because they raise the funds or they volunteer their time or they were involved in hiring the professional. Of course we cannot forget the donor who may occupy an important position within the organization by virtue of their generous support.

It is easy to fall into the well known “trap” in voluntary organizations where professionals and lay leaders begin to argue over the answer to the question, “who is the boss”? Is it the professional who has the education, training, expertise, and experience, as well as, a commitment to the highest quality of service? Or is it the dedicated, devoted, committed, generous donor and lay leader who volunteers time as well as expertise and financial support?

The question is not who is the boss. The question is how has the professional – lay leader relationship been developed to allow for a real partnership and collaboration so the decision provides for the optimum use of resources to enable the organization to reach the maximum number of recipients. If this has been an ongoing effort in the daily life of the organization, then, whether there are more than adequate funds or less funds than needed, the leadership both professional and volunteer will be able to provide for the continued provision of services to the community.

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.