Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Non-profit Volunteers & Staff: An Essential Team

By Virgil R. Carter

Successful non-profit organizations are often those whose volunteers and professional staff work effectively together as an essential team for the organization’s success, year after year.  Yet, we often see examples of non-profit organizations in turmoil, with tenuous and/or tension-filled relationships between volunteers and staff.  What can we learn from these less-than-ideal relationships and how can non-profit organizations avoid adversarial relationships?

A good place to begin is to an understanding of volunteers and professional staff.  In professional societies and trade associations, volunteers usually care passionately about the organization and its mission.  Many volunteers are leading figures in their field and are subject-matter experts.  At the same time, many volunteers may have little leadership experience in the unique setting of nonprofit, volunteer-led organizations.  And volunteers, while knowledgeable in the setting of their personal interest, may have little knowledge or interest in the organization as a whole.

By comparison, many professional staff, particularly those at senior executive staff levels, spend years expanding their enterprise-wide knowledge of and leadership in nonprofit organizations. Many senior staff executives actively participate in the broader nonprofit world. Long-time staff also comprise the “corporate memory” of an organization, knowing what works and what doesn’t.  And staff are clearly accountable for organizational performance, whereas volunteers may place higher priority on collegiality than accountability for results.

Compounding this disparity of knowledge, experience and varied roles is the fact that job descriptions and responsibilities of volunteer leaders and professional staff 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?

How can successful volunteer-staff teams be organized and maintained in non-profits?  One approach is creating and maintaining a volunteer-staff partnership, with clear roles for both volunteers and staff, 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 even be coupled with volunteer assertions that association activities shouldn’t produce net revenues over expenses, to keep volunteer expenses 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 to timely information nor the available 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.

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 essential teams--productive partnership. The results—more effective volunteers, stability in staff performance, and more successful, enjoyable teams—make the successful volunteer-staff partnership worth everyone’s effort.

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