Monday, September 16, 2013

Aligning Volunteers and Staff

By Virgil Carter

Experienced non-profit CEOs and senior staff know that their job tenure may be rocky.  Tension, sometimes conflict, with volunteers and staff may be all too common.  When these situations occur they are not good for the organization or those involved.  What can be done to understand and minimize these situations?

Closer examination often reveals that active volunteers care passionately about the association.  Why else would they volunteer their time?  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.  In fact, many active volunteers may have little senior or executive leadership experience, since their work roles may be at mid-management or specialist levels.

By comparison, many CEOs and senior staff spend years expanding their enterprise-wide leadership and management knowledge of nonprofits. Many CEOs and senior staff gain perspective through active participation in the broader nonprofit world.

Thus we have a disparity:  volunteers without senior or executive management experience working directly with staff who may be functioning in senior or executive roles on a daily basis.  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 reconcile these disparities between volunteers and CEOs/senior staff?  One important improvement is forging and maintaining a volunteer-staff partnership built around leadership role clarity based on the following:

·         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. Annual and on-going volunteer and staff leadership orientations provide on-going opportunities to discuss and reinforce the importance of role clarity. 

The results—more effective volunteers, stability in CEO and senior staff tenure, and more successful, enjoyable association experiences—make the partnership worth everyone’s effort.

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