Monday, June 6, 2011

CEOs and Volunteers

By Virgil R. Carter

Experienced CEOs know that job tenure can be fleeting. CEO tenure is often volatile—a situation that cannot benefit the organization, the CEO or the organization’s members. Why such a situation?
Closer examination often reveals the following: volunteers usually care passionately about the association. Many volunteers are leading figures in their field. While many volunteers are subject-matter experts, many have little leadership experience in the unique setting of nonprofit, volunteer-led organizations.
By comparison, many CEOs spend years expanding their enterprise-wide leadership and management knowledge of nonprofits. Many CEOs actively participate in the broader nonprofit world. Compounding this disparity of knowledge and experience is the fact that roles and responsibilities of volunteer leaders and CEOs often are highly ambiguous. Even where there are written policies, there may be many more unwritten policies actually determining who does what, when, and how. Sound familiar?
What can be done to reduce tension between volunteers and CEOs? One important improvement is forging and maintaining a volunteer-staff partnership built on two categories of activity essential for many non-profit associations:

Mission-driven activities: These activities tend to represent the purpose of the organization. These activities motivate volunteers and are where most want to be active. These activities, which are rightly led and populated by volunteers, may produce few revenues and may be largely subsidized. This financial situation may be coupled with volunteer assertions that association activities shouldn’t produce revenues over expenses, to keep volunteer costs to a minimum. Mission-driven activities are critical. There is nothing wrong with subsidized activities, so long as revenues from other sources are available for the needed subsidies.

Business operations activities: These activities are where most of the positive revenue is created to subsidize mission-driven activities. Because they are profit-and-loss oriented, they must be staff led and managed, since volunteers simply have neither the access nor the time to manage business affairs in the timely and agile manner required. A caution: business activities must be related to the mission, as much as subsidized activities.

Clear roles: Establishing clear roles and accountabilities for these two categories of association activity enables volunteer leaders and CEOs to play to their respective strengths. Such clarity, coupled with good communications, enables effective leadership, improved relationships, and strengthened organizational performance.
Leadership role clarity is an important step to transform tension between volunteer leaders and CEOs into productive partnership. The results—more effective volunteers, stability in CEO tenure, and more successful, enjoyable associations—make the partnership worth everyone’s effort.

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