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Get 'Em in Gear

Are non-profit leaders taking volunteers for granted?  The story has it that non-profit executives have only three responsibilities: 1) the care of the board; 2) the feeding of the board; and 3) the care and feeding of the board.  While this observation may draw a smirk, smile or perhaps a groan from your fellow CEO’s, it also reflects a hard truth about getting and keeping volunteers and members involved in today’s time-starved environment.  The time deficit cuts both ways for volunteers and exec’s alike.  The challenge is particularly acute for small associations where volunteers serve dual roles as both leaders/owners of the association and oftentimes as volunteer staff.  Imagine if you will a stockholder showing up at IBM‘s Armonk, NY headquarters to trim up the lawn, stuff envelopes for the latest promotion, or perhaps taking a turn cleaning up the restrooms.  Unimaginable, right?  Yet, isn’t that what we ask of volunteers (okay, maybe not the lawn and bathrooms…oh, you do…really)?

We need their human capital to make our organizations run and the roles for volunteers are changing in unexpected ways.  One example.  Even a rudimentary reading of the new Form 990 regulations makes clear that the accountability stakes for boards have been raised significantly.  Keep a sharp eye on your Directors & Officers Liability Insurance premiums in the years ahead.

The challenge for nonprofit leaders is building confidence and comfort in leading and managing volunteers in this matrix of volunteer engagement.  To be sure some of us prefer to keep volunteers “out of the weeds” focused tightly on the 30,000 foot view alongside power of the policy and strategy juggernaut. With a solid strategy, finely tuned implementation plans and financial business model built on strength, many Boards will happily enjoy the view.  Until they don’t.  And then—even in the face of a strong balance sheet—they will prod for softness and vulnerabilities whether real or imagined.  The unrelenting feeding frenzy brought on by the economic meltdown has dimmed the value of rose colored glasses significantly.

For others of us though, the demand for new service that meet or exceed member’s expectations, marginal growth in existing programs and unpredictable financial resources require we view volunteers through a bifurcated lens as both advisors and sources of human capital essential to the successful execution of an association’s mission and delivery of services.  Like so many things in life, there are real risks and real rewards in learning to lead effectively in this ever-changing volunteer paradigm.

In An Unsettled Economy

While many of us have been through economic downturns, most of us have never been through an economic downturn quite like this one.  Yet even in severe business circumstances there are opportunities to sustain our core business and strengthen the position of our associations by looking beyond the current bad times.

Although it may be some time before we see clear skies on the horizon, there are steps each of us can take this week, this month, this quarter, to better position our associations for the future—stay focused on your core business, maintain a long-term view (while paying attention to the essential short-term actions), relentlessly manage costs (some bargains are only available in a downturn…think real estate) and work diligently to strengthen the loyalty of members, vendors, suppliers and stakeholders.  Some of them are surely hurting in this current financial storm and need the association’s support and help.

Darrell Rigby a director at Bain & Company conducted extensive research among Fortune 500 firms that had lived through industry slumps and economic recessions.  The resulting article Moving Upward in a Downturn published in the Harvard Business Review offers some useful insights on ways you can help the industry and the Association emerge stronger and better positioned to take advantage of an economic recovery when it arrives.  If you prefer something more “association-centric” check out  7 Lessons You Can Learn from Business.  It’s a brief article authored by yours truly offering ideas for managing in an economic pinch published in ASAE and The Center for Association Leadership’s Membership Developments newsletter.

Embrace Change

Beth Ziesenis has written a wonderfully engaging piece for ASAE and The Center’s CEO Leadership Letter titled Leading Your Association to Embrace Change.** As she rightly points out, the business of associations is change.  Building off the recently released research Designing Your Future  by Rohit Talwar that identifies 10 key patterns of change likely to impact organizations and the communities they serve, Beth explores the critical role executives face  in dealing with fast-paced change.

Whether a CEO chooses a team system or encourages future thinking as strategies to deal with change, management will also strengthen staff’s ability to run a successful organization by illuminating their approach.   Beth shares the wisdom of management consultant and author Rosabeth Moss Kanter who posits in The Enduring Skills of Change Leaders that “techniques that facilitate change within organizations—creating listening posts, opening lines of communication, articulating a set of explicit, shared goals, building coalitions, acknowledging others—are key to effective partnerships and sustaining high performance, not just managing change.”  There are several concepts here worth thinking deeply about if you are contemplating or engaged in leading change.

(**Full disclosure: Beth quotes me at some length.)