Category Archives: Volunteers

The Case for New Volunteers

Mission Driven VolunteersThe case for new volunteers is really about devising a new driver.  It is to a lesser degree about a new direction.  The new driver is organizational mission and the new direction is relevancy, vibrancy and responsiveness for volunteers.  That’s no small matter.  In the United States over 64 million people volunteer every year.  While most of the effort is given over to religious organizations, social services and education, sports, the arts, health and civic efforts all garner a significant share of the almost eight billion hours volunteers give to their communities, clubs and professions.

If there’s a case for leading and influencing  the way volunteers engage with institutions, communities and civic organizations, a fascinating set of new ideas has emerged in a recently published research paper, The Mission Driven Volunteer written by two leading consultants in the non-profit sector, Peggy Hoffman, CAE and Elizabeth Weaver Engel, CAE.

I am often struck by the continuing theme in the not-for-profit community focused on how many things in the sector are “broken”.  Rarely can one open a magazine, peruse a blog or skim headlines without crossing into the death of strategic planning, withering business models, poorly designed tactics, out-of-touch volunteers, broken membership strategy, warped technology, or the failure of change management.  With so much wrong, it is surprising we get anything done at all.  Yet the non-profit sector contributes to society in ways even Alexis de Tocqueville never imagined.

The Mission Driven Volunteer is research worth pushing beyond the initial “broken” hyperbole to find the real gems and insights in this work.   If you’ve ever worked in the not-for-profit sector (as I have for some thirty plus years now) much of what you read will be familiar.  Depending on your experience with volunteers, it may also be a vibrant reminder of the frustration felt time to time in the work.  Engel and Hoffman’s research however goes well beyond simply naming the problem, or pointing out the myths and truths by offering a thoughtful and insightful pathway to fixing what’s gone wrong in the committee and volunteer space.

Historically, volunteerism has followed familiar pathway.  Organizations and institutions in need of volunteers largely defined the terms and conditions under which such effort could be contributed.  The design largely reflected the organization’s needs and only tangentially considered the needs of the volunteer.  If a volunteer couldn’t hack the schedule, responsibility or pace required they would likely be asked to step off or out.  In a time when volunteerism was a defining component of being a good neighbor or responsible citizen, rigidity in structure was the volunteer’s problem, not the institution.

The norms for committees and volunteers are changing before our very eyes according to Hoffman and Engel.  The research effectively illuminates the unique ways new generations of volunteers are rising up. “They seek different kinds of volunteer experiences than their predecessors…ones that are less about structure, position and prestige and are focused instead on independence, meaning, impact and getting it done.”  In the new world of committee and volunteer service, “well done is better than well said.”

Engel and Hoffman provide a persuasive argument for the shortcomings inherent in traditional committee process and decision-making structures.  As they rightly point out, “the traditional committee model is ill-suited to the rapid decision-making and experimentation required to craft innovative responses to new situations.”

To drive their point home, Hoffman and Engel provide committee and volunteer case studies drawn from the innovations and experiences of three differing organizations including the Maryland Association of CPAs; the National Fluid Power Association and the Oncology Nursing Society.  While it is difficult to fully capture the nuances of the “behind-the-scenes” effort essential to successfully transitioning the volunteer experience from the case studies, they do offer a window on the possibilities.

Redefining the committee experience brings with it the demand for greater management of the volunteer experience.  It is here, I find myself at odds with the authors and sympathizing with my brethren in the profession.  Far too many not-for-profit groups are already seriously bereft of essential operating and managerial resources.  The notion that the mission driven volunteer will also require a new mission driven volunteer management process could become a step too far and a non-starter for many not-for-profit organizations.   That would be disappointing for lots of reasons.

As leaders we are always interested in new ideas about pathways to improvement and sustainable models that will enhance the likelihood of success.  It is fair to say not-for-profit groups find themselves on a rapidly shifting “playing field” and the mantras about nimbleness and flexibility are no longer theoretical concepts, they are the reality of their work.

Volunteerism like membership is no longer about belonging, rather it is about believing. Peggy Hoffman and Elizabeth Walker Engel have vividly illuminated both new thinking and new models that will enrich and enlighten the coming work of redefining the committee and volunteer experience in the not-for-profit sector for some time to come.



How Safe Is Your Organization?

In 2011 approximately 275,000 organizations automatically lost their tax-exempt status because they did not file legally required Internal Revenue Service annual reports for three consecutive years. While the IRS believes the vast majority of these organizations are defunct, a review of the Revocation of Exempt Organizations roster show a surprising number that are not–or at least didn’t intend to be.  Which gives rise to wondering who exactly is leading these organizations and why are they ignoring their fundamental responsibilities?

While it’s easy to dismiss revocation as an action of an out-of-control bureaucracy where complexity rules and common sense is an oxymoron, but that reaction truly misses the point.  Every leader has a foundational set of responsibilities that simply may not be ignored.  Ignoring them risks not only your own career, but in a broader sense the integrity of your profession.  We cannot expect those we lead to respect us, our decisions or our commands when we so blatantly and irresponsibly ignore our most fundamental obligations.

Working and serving with volunteer leaders and voluntary boards it is easy to understand the operational complexities and difficult choices volunteers face serving in these roles and sharing these responsibilities.  Understanding the real challenges facing members, being certain the association is maintaining its outward focus to serve those needs and assessing the effectiveness of it all, is definitely not for the casual observer nor feint of heart.

Still too many boards fumble while working to get it right.  The very nature of their voluntary service—part-time engagement, competing business and family obligations, limited meetings, ill-defined reporting schemes, ideological splinters, and limited or non-existent safeguards—all serve not only to increase the risks but limit the volunteer’s ability to garner perspective, glean incisive intelligence and truly understand just where the organization stands. One place to look is an ineffective or dysfunctional relationship with the chief staff executive.  What do Board’s want from their senior staff leaders?

Research by Tecker International identified four beliefs that volunteer boards want to have about their senior staff.  They want to know senior staff:

(a) Authentically value and appreciate what they do to earn a living
and genuinely like them as people;

(b) Place the needs and interests of the organization and its mission
over personal career goals;

(c) Are sufficiently familiar with the conditions of the organization
and its environment to help them understand what is going on; and

(d) Are sufficiently knowledgeable about the dynamics of associations
to give them good advice about choices in discussions of challenges
and opportunities.

It’s not just Boards.  Staff leaders have a critical role to play in building and sustaining mutual trust and respect.  Sadly, the stories of dishonesty, mis-direction and less than transparent reporting by trusted  leaders are commonplace today. (a rudimentary Google search will bring you over a half million hits)  Some deceptions are big and brash, like the saga of Bill Aramony at United Way.  Others are considerably smaller.  All serve to undermine the essential confidence in our tax exempt organizations and trust in those we call leaders.  So what do you do as a leader to assure greater success?

One place to start is revisiting the core standards of your chosen profession and engaging your team in discussions about just what they mean for your organization.  If your organization has a code of ethics or conflict of interest policies bring those to the table too.  If not, perhaps now is a good time to get started.  You can use the work of your industry, other associations, or the guidance of your legal counsel as a starting point.

ASAE: The Center for Association Leadership established a set of Core Ethical Standards to which it encourages its members to aspire:

  1. Respect and uphold public laws that govern one’s work;
  2. Be honest in conducting the member’s business;
  3. Respect the confidentiality of information gained through one’s work;
  4. Act fairly;
  5. Foster an ethical culture through one’s work; and
  6. Take responsibility for one’s conduct.

Rick Cohen writing in The Nonprofit Quarterly tells a story about a building inspector who agreed to wear a wire to help prosecutors catch a crooked developer.  He did it Cohen writes, “to stand up in his own individual way for governmental integrity, for the public interest.”

If you want to lead you must be prepared to “stand-up” every day for what’s right, what’s required and what’s essential for the progress and continuity of your organization.  Don’t let what you don’t know limit that.

Leading in the Wilderness

We are definitely in leadership wilderness.  As a leader, finding true north—even with a compass in hand—seems nearly impossible some days.  Let’s suppose as an example, you are in the business of producing and selling single-use plastic shopping bags.   You know, the type given out at the grocery, bookstore or your local pharmacy.  Now meet the city fathers and mothers of Manhattan Beach, California who decided taxing plastic bag use (like Washington, DC and other cities do) wasn’t enough.  Instead they voted for (and the California Supreme Court upheld) a total and complete ban of the single-use plastic bag.  Boom.  Your product just became public enemy #1.  What’s your next step?  You’re leading in the wilderness.

A prominent evangelical leader and former Presidential candidate announces that a man whose wife was far “gone” with Alzheimer’s should divorce her if he felt a need for new companionship.  Say what?  Whatever happened to the notion of compassion or the sanctity of marriage vows?  Does the Alzheimer’s Association need a guidebook on abandoning one’s spouse in the face of dementia brought about by the onset of Alzheimer’s?  What association would ever be faced with such a ridiculous notion?  What’s your next step?  Leading in the wilderness, once again.

The newly elected President of your Association is arrested by police on charges of soliciting a minor child online.  While the case has yet to produce a verdict, the individual is suspended from their job, receives extensive local and national news coverage including the posting of the police “mug-shot” accompanied by a reference to your organization by name.  An elected volunteer leader charged with a any crime is a full blown crisis and something that risks trust, confidence and respect for your organization.  What’s your next step?  We are truly leading in the wilderness.

So what’s a leader to do in the face of the wilderness?  Here’s some advice:

Grasp as much calm space as possible.  Close your eyes for a few minutes.  Think of a favorite place or activity that helps you relax and go there in your mind—if only for a few moments.  A clear mind can help you refocus quickly.

Move to action by being transparent and communicating clearly.  Acknowledging the situation, communicating the facts as they are known and your organization’s plans moving forward will help immensely.  To their credit, the Alzheimer’s Association declined to comment on the remarks of the evangelical leader.  Instead they stayed focused on the association’s mission and message of compassion.

If you mess up, fess up.  Straightforward apologies resonate strongly with the public and places you in situational control while giving you time to explain what has happened.  Candace Belair a respected communication advisor recommends you, “Be proactive rather than reactive…It’s best that you tell your story first. The American public has a great ability to forgive as long as you step up and fix the problem.”  Belair also encourages leaders to pick their words carefully to avoid making the problem or situation worse.

Finally, find a way to move forward.  That doesn’t mean forgetting or dodging the problem.  Rather it means extracting the “lessons learned” and moving ahead to resolve the issues and continue working toward your overall goals.

It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters especially when it comes to leading in the wilderness.  What’s your next step?