Serving an all-volunteer organization

By Regenia Bailey / Guest Column

Our seven-county Creative Corridor is home to more than 3,000 registered nonprofit organizations. Most of these are small and rely upon volunteers, rather than paid staff, to manage them. Some intend to remain all-volunteer organizations; others are seeking to grow to a point at which they can hire staff.

No matter their intentions, the boards of all-volunteer organizations face unique governance and management challenges. Boards for these types of organizations exemplify the term ‘working board’ because they are responsible for both the governance and the management duties.

While some may dismiss volunteer-run organizations as unprofessional, or even insignificant, these organizations – and their hardworking volunteers – contribute a great deal to our communities. It not only takes additional time and energy to serve on the board of an all-volunteer organization, it also requires a few additional board skills and abilities.


Wearing multiple hats

Governing an organization and managing one are two distinct functions. On a working board for an all-volunteer organization, it’s important that members are clear about which hat they are wearing at any given time. At board meetings, members should don their governance hats as they take on the responsibilities of policy development or determining the long-term plans of the organization.

When the discussion and decisions turn to more operational items, like determining who will update the organization’s website or develop systems to open and process the organization’s mail, then the governance hats are replaced with management hats. It can be helpful to have the board chair note when the group must bring its governance perspective to the discussion and when it should play its management role. Naturally, one role informs the other, but by only wearing one hat at a time, the board is better able to fulfill its responsibilities to both roles.


Creating and following the plan

In every organization it’s critical that all board members are on the same page regarding the organization’s purpose and future direction. It is doubly important in an all-volunteer organization that everyone understands what the organization does, why it does it and what the plans are for the future.

Some may worry that a plan, particularly for a new organization, will limit organic growth and creativity, restricting the group’s abilities to take advantage of opportunities. However, without a plan that clarifies the board’s shared understanding of the best direction for the organization, it’s easy to lose focus and for activities to get off track or be overlooked.

Imagine embarking on a camping trip with a group of people. The group must determine its destination and timeline (governance role). Once these are decided, the group must collectively determine the more mundane aspects of the journey (management role) to ensure that during the trip there’s enough food, water and bug spray for everyone. Between determining destination and how many gallons of Bug Soother to pack, the group must also obtain capital resources for the trip – vehicles, tents and equipment. A plan helps ensure that the camping trip is a success, rather than a misadventure with too few tents and too many granola bars.


Volunteering for routine tasks

Once the board has determined the plan, it needs people who will manage it and run the organization. In volunteer-run organizations, this falls to board members and other volunteers. This requires a group of people with a range of skills. This also requires board members willing to commit the time and energy necessary to not only govern the organization, but also to manage it. It’s important to clarify these expectations when recruiting new members to the board.

Serving on the board for a volunteer-run organization can be a rewarding experience. However, it requires people with the time, energy, and the additional skills necessary to govern and manage the organization.

Board members must have the ability to wear multiple hats in the organization, be willing to develop – and follow – an organizational plan, and have the skills necessary to perform the routine tasks to run the organization.

When recruiting members for your all-volunteer organization, carefully consider if prospective board members have the skills, as well as the time and energy, to commit to the work.

Regenia Bailey is the founder and owner of Bailey Leadership Initiative LLC. She works with organizations from all sectors on strategic positioning and organizational effectiveness. For more information or to comment on this column, reach her through her website: