In the last post I touched on the importance of mission statements and the balance needed around passion for mission in non-profits. This month I’ll touch on a couple thoughts on managing volunteers and building a strong working relationship between the board and key staff, two unique challenges in the non-profit world.

Managing Volunteers
A non-profit leader I really respect once told me that she is almost more stringent in “hiring” volunteers than she is in staff because “once you have a volunteer, they are with you forever.”  While maybe not technically true, the sentiment of the statement absolutely is.  The first key in successful volunteer management is recruiting and bringing aboard the right people.  Even when a small organization is struggling to find volunteers, taking the time to find good people, who are committed to the organization’s goals and have the skills needed for the assignment will save time, energy and sometimes a lot of hassle in the future.

Once you have found a good person, it is essential to train them and give them the tools they need to succeed.  Nothing turns a volunteer faster than being frustrated in trying to accomplish an assigned task.  People have enough frustrations in their lives; they don’t want to be faced with unnecessary hassles when volunteering.  Be sure to communicate expectations clearly and be available to support them, especially early on in their work.

And maybe most importantly, let volunteers know they are valued.  Some may need greater recognition than others, but most people just want to know that their work is having an impact and that their effort is appreciated.  Find small ways to consistently communicate how much they mean to your organization and be sure to greet them when they arrive and say thanks at the end of their shift.  These things may seem obvious, but I have seen so many volunteers over the years who feel that they are taken for granted, because these small things aren’t done consistently.  Also, be cautious about spending a lot of money on recognition, I’ve heard multiple volunteers say they would rather see that money going directly to serve the mission rather than extravagant volunteer appreciation events.

Relationship Between the Board and the Staff
This really could be a series of posts all by itself.  In many of the small and medium sized non-profits I work with, the relationship between the board and the paid staff–whether it’s the executive director or part-time coordinator–is a challenge for board members to manage.  Each organization and the relationship between board and staff will be different, but here are a couple of ideas that may help in building a great working relationship.

First, it’s essential to remember that staff, no matter the management structure, ultimately answer to the board.  As a board member you have a responsibility to set the direction–with consultation, of course–of the organization. The professionals working at the organization, are then responsible for making the work happen.  One situation stands out clearly, in which board members felt they were reporting to the staff person and doing what he wanted them to do rather than the other way around.  While hiring a strong person who can guide the organization is key to success, it is important that roles be communicated clearly and then maintained.  It’s also important to remember that the staff person is a professional, who has chosen to work in the field to make a difference.  While there might be a temptation to get in and manage minute details of the operation, that can be as or more difficult for staff deal with than not enough direction.

One key way to do that is to have well-written and up-to-date job descriptions for board members, staff and volunteers.  While many organizations have these on file, I see job descriptions all the time that are out of date or bear little resemblance to the actual work being done.  It’s difficult for anyone to succeed when they don’t have a clear sense of their responsibilities that also make sense to those to whom they report.

Second, consistent, on-going communication is a must to have a strong working relationship between staff and the board.  Key members of the board should be communicating regularly with the executive director and be accessible when he/she needs clarification on board direction.  The board needs to also make sure it is receiving information from multiple sources, not just the executive director or staff person who reports directly to them.  In a couple organizations with which I familiar the executive director forbade staff from talking directly to board members.  While respecting a management structure is important, a leader who wants to control information flow that closely should raise red flags for the board.

As we get into fall board retreat season, be sure to be thinking about some of these key concepts on how to address issues your organization may be facing.

True North offers board and staff development workshops for non-profits of all sizes.  We are Authorized Parnters for Everything DiSC® and The Five Behaviors of a Cohesive Team™.  We love working with non-profits who are doing important work in the communities they serve.