Volunteer vs volunteer board

I sit on the boards of a couple of local non-profits, and one of them had a planning meeting recently. At the meeting, the complaint was made that “the board members aren’t stepping up to help run things.”

I’ve heard the same sentiment a dozen times, and i bet everybody in town who sits on a non-profit board has heard it too. And it occurred to me that there’s a fundamental flaw with the way our whole area thinks about, and enacts, the board model.

Supporters are interested in your cause; members are interested in your governance.

The first clue came to me at a presentation on non-profit legalities this spring by a specialist lawyer from Vancouver. In response to an audience question about AGM attendance (where a certain number of members is required to make quorum), she pointed out that you have to distinguish between “members” and “supporters.” Supporters, she said, are interested in your cause; members are interested in your governance. And those are two very different things. It’s an important distinction to make, and it’s one rarely made out here on the wet coast.

Supporters, in other words, attend your events, maybe even help plan them and volunteer at them. Meetings, they could care less about.

Members, on the other hand, are interested in the workings of the organization. They come to your meetings. They may help with all the routine, office-type stuff that has nothing directly to do with your mission, but still has to be done to keep the org running.

Expecting board members to also be the main event volunteers puts a double load on them.

That’s the distinction i want to make, and make clear to those org’s whose boards i sit on. I’m a volunteer board member; that doesn’t mean i’m automatically a volunteer. It means i signed up to help steer the organization along toward its mission over the next year or two or five. It does not mean i am freely available to move chairs, do tedious office work, plan and execute events. And it doesn’t mean that i should feel guilty if i can’t or don’t want to do those thing.

Expecting board members to also be the organization’s main event volunteers does a disservice to both organization and board members, because it puts a double load on them — event volunteering, which can be exciting but can also eat up a lot of time, on top of board volunteering, which is rarely exciting but also eats up time sitting in meetings. To expect the same pool of people to do both is just asking for problems. As “board” meetings morph into event-planning meetings, the strategic thinking gets lost. The end result is poor board function (e.g. no long-term planning) and poorly organized events — not to mention the inevitable burn-out.

I think pretty much every non-profit in the West Coast area assumes that its main volunteers should also sit on its board, and they recruit with that in mind — the more the merrier, everybody with half an interest is invited.

I suggest that this is counterproductive. Local boards should start thinking in terms of cultivating and maintaining a separate pool of volunteers interested in events, in pushing forward the cause; and that they keep their board recruitment minimal, limited to strategic thinkers who are interested in nurturing and developing the organization as an entity in itself.

Author: Greg Blee

Poster to my own gregblee.ca blog, and others.

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