The unpaid – volunteer – board member

For some people, their rise to become a member of the board is the culmination of years of excellent volunteer service to the non-profit organization.

Many are recruited to boards with no prior service to the organization — these people are valued for their wisdom and community perspective. In both cases there is often the expectation that service on the board is the member’s contribution to the community as a volunteer. This expectation frequently results in some misconceptions about the job — especially if the board is using Policy Governance (PG).

While it is true that on most non-profit boards the board members are not paid, the members should not think of themselves as part of the volunteer structure of the organization. Volunteers are like staff in that their function is to participate in fulfilling the mandate of the organization. Like staff, the volunteers are accountable to their supervisors, and ultimately to the CEO.

The board is not accountable to the CEO. The board is accountable to the the segment of the community whom the board has identified (in policy) as their owners. And, of course, the CEO is accountable to the board. This is a big difference from being a volunteer in the organization. The issue here is that of accountability, not whether or not there is remuneration for the job.

Often nominating committees will find new board members from among those people who have served the organization well in various volunteer capacities. This is reasonable because here is where they will find people who have a demonstrated record with and a commitment to the organization, who may deeply understand some of the services provided by the association, and who may also have a strong personal network of people connected with the work of the organization.

The only problem that might arise with selecting board members from the volunteer structure is the sense that membership on the board is a continuation of that structure.

When there is a good volunteer program the organization ensures that people are carefully recruited, then the recruits are trained for the job (they may even have job descriptions), in their work they are appropriately supervised, and eventually receive fair recognition for the work. Large organizations often have a volunteer coordinator who understands and manages the volunteer program. In smaller organizations it is still a good idea for someone to study volunteerism and who ensures that that good volunteer practices are in place.

Managing an effective volunteer program is very similar to managing employees. (If this discussion is new to you and your organization has volunteers, or would like to have volunteers, please take the time to study how volunteerism works. Your program will be much more effective as a result.)

Volunteers are recruited either because they have skills that can serve the organization, or because they are willing to be trained to perform the job function of a volunteer position (or are willing to take the initiative to figure out what needs to be done and simply produce the necessary results). In all cases, they are there, as volunteers, to help the organization.

When a volunteer is recruited to the board it often seems as if this is merely participation on another committee in the organization. This is not true, especially if this is a Policy Governance board. Here are some of the differences:

  • the job of the board is to be a fiduciary for the owners (no one on the staff is in a position to tell the board how it must do its job)
  • As a fiduciary, it is the board members’ job to know or to learn what the owners would expect of the organization (often the board struggles with this because there is no one simple way to do this)
  • the board member is not there because of any personal skills — the member is not on the board to supply the staff with services… the board member is not there to help the staff (nominating committee, are you paying attention to this?)
  • Policy Governance is not intuitive, yet it is unlikely that the staff can teach the board members how to govern, so either the board will have its own methods of training the recruit, or the member will have to take the initiative to study this form of governance
  • since the staff does not supervise the board, and the owners are not a formal group who can truly hold the board accountable, the board and its members must evaluate their own performance (which is where many PG boards are sloppy)
  • the board is accountable for the whole organization, and it has one employee: the CEO (this may seem like such a huge responsibility that some boards try to avoid it by taking on lesser roles)

If you know PG, you know all of this. Frequently I see board members who were hastily recruited, who were happy serving as volunteers in the organization and who knew they were providing useful services, who then find the work of the board to be very unsatisfying. I’ll hear them say, “Just tell me what I can do to help.” Or, “Why isn’t the board using my special skills (e.g. lawyer, accountant, consultant, web designer, etc.)?” The culture of the PG board, which requires the board to work collectively and to show leadership, seems lonely after being one of the troops in the organization where there was supervision and recognition. The remedy is for the nominating committee of the board to work harder to recruit appropriate people, to truly explain the job, and then to ensure that the new people understand the job and then receive the training in PG so as to be able to govern effectively.

What is not appropriate is for the members of the board to continue the culture of being volunteers in the organization, and to attempt to provide services to the organization instead of attending to the leadership functions of the board.

The board is not there to serve the organization, it is there to ensure that the organization appropriately serves the community.

At least those people who have been through a well-managed volunteer program expect that they will need to learn any new job, and they will be supervised and evaluated. Sure they will be recognized for good work, but if they don’t show up, or are lax in their performance, someone will ask them to leave the volunteer program (yes, volunteers get fired). So, if they actually have the opportunity learn the job of being on a PG board, you can probably count on them to be diligent in performing their duties as a board member.

What about the board member who was recruited from the community, and was never a volunteer?

It is my observation that many of these people think that the work on the board is that of a volunteer job (because it is unpaid). They often come into the position with no idea of what it means to either be a real volunteer or to serve on a PG board. Unfortunately, many of these people think that if a job is unpaid it has no real value. As a result, these people will show up at board meetings only when it does not conflict with their private business duties or their social calendar. They are often not diligent in learning the job of governance (remember, PG is not intuitive and it must be learned), and while they may participate effectively in the meetings they attend, they seldom read the distributed materials and the board cannot count on them to work between meetings.

Unfortunately, many boards seem to suffer with such members who mean well, but are not prepared to fulfill their fiduciary responsibilities. Often the bylaws make it difficult to remove such a person; and if there is a process of removal it is so ugly that the rest of the board will not have the stomach for it. Is there a remedy? Yes, and it is not easy. The solution is to recruit suitable people to the board. Remember that the board is accountable for its own processes. Policy Governance does not provide instruction with regard to board recruitment practices. I teach that in order to have good governance, the nominating committee must find people who are willing to govern well.

Good board recruitment practices require first that the board recognizes that this is a matter that it must do well (a wise CEO might prompt and help — but it is really the board’s job). Second, the board must demonstrate a high degree of integrity with regard to all of its governing — the point here is that around the board table members must be knowledgeable about the work of governing and create a disciplined culture with regard to its deliberations (part of the board’s leadership role is setting a good example). Third, the work of the nominating committee should include being clear about what is involved in joining this board when recruiting potential members. Fourth, new members must be trained and mentored in Policy Governance, the culture of the board, and the affairs of the organization. All of this cannot be accomplished each year at the last possible moment with a hastily arranged ad hoc nominating committee.

Developing new board members is part of the leadership role of the board. If it is done well, with good humour, and with a sense of the positive community transformation that can occur as a result of the work of this board and its organization, the new board member will see that taking on this job is an opportunity for personal development and valuable community service.

© 2009 R. Ballantyne. All rights reserved. This is for your use at your computer screen. For reproduction of any kind you will need the written permission of the author.

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