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.

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