I’m A Volunteer; You Can’t Make Me Do Anything

The headline of this article is an expression I’ve used for over thirty years. Relying on volunteers can lead to misunderstanding, sluggish performance, disappointment, and oftentimes, negative outcomes. Or, volunteers can be the measure that propels a nonprofit organization to its greatest success. In my travels, I meet Executive Directors and CEOs of nonprofits on a regular basis. A good deal of my professional work is with nonprofits, and on a personal level, I have served as volunteer president or chairperson of the board of no fewer than twenty different nonprofit organizations, some of them national entities. In other words, I have a pretty good sense of “what’s behind the curtain.” A question I like to ask privately is, “What’s the biggest problem you face as the leader of your organization?”

The answer is almost always a variation of this: “I don’t have the level or type of resources I need to get the job done.” To me that is code for: “I’m stuck with the wrong people on the bus, or at least, in the wrong seats.” And the unstated but understood reference largely applies to the board, volunteers and/or members. Inevitably, most nonprofits rely on a volunteer board or members acting in a volunteer capacity to provide, to some extent, the financial, intellectual and labor firepower needed to fully achieve the mission.

So why is it nonprofit boards don’t follow more of the practices of their for profit brethren? What responsible corporation would add directors without doing thorough background checks on the individuals they are considering for a seat? Likewise, what responsible corporate board would bring on a new member without first asking them to submit to some profile testing? There are many inexpensive personality and organizational development tools available online. They can help both the organization better determine the preferred communications style of an individual and how best to help them get established on the board to make a significant contribution early in their term. These evaluation tools are not meant to measure a person’s merit as a director but merely to determine how all parties can achieve success together and find the greatest measure of satisfaction in the relationship.

Are nonprofits so needy for bodies or so afraid of offending a prospective director that they avoid these sound business practices? If an organization isn’t willing to invest a few hundred dollars in better understanding the communications style of each of its directors, I question how seriously they take the board’s role and how committed they are to mutual success of the organization and the individual. The financial investment in aligning directors within the organization could be recouped in short order if each director hits the ground running.

In the for profit business world most responsible CEOs and chairpersons would never consider having a board member serve with whom they hadn’t had a personal meeting on an annual or semiannual basis. The purpose of the meeting is to define the specific role the director intends to play and the measurable goals that they commit to achieving. Many of the nonprofit boards I see spend too much time focused on committee assignments resulting in “anonymity of the herd,” and not enough time promoting individual responsibility through project champion roles.

In a recent strategic planning meeting I was facilitating among staff leadership, board members and key volunteers for a prominent, twenty-five year old nonprofit organization, I made a comment meant to stimulate conversation. The reaction I got surprised me only in its candor, not the sentiment.

The Director of Marketing, who had been fairly quite throughout the session, was all too eager to speak up when I stated that some staff people in nonprofit environments find volunteers to more trouble than they are worth. She said, “I completely agree. They tend to criticize what we do; look to create work for us when we already have our plates full; need an inordinate amount of attention, often don’t do what they say they will in a timely manner or at all; and don’t really respect the professional skills it takes to do our jobs. In most cases, I consider volunteers to be a hindrance, more than an asset.” I don’t need to tell you how the Executive Director reacted to this kind of response, especially with a room full of volunteers.

Of course, you are as dismayed by this kind of response as I am. Your organization loves, deeply appreciates and nurtures all your volunteers, in every capacity.  Why is it then that you don’t have the board of your dreams? Why don’t you have ample volunteers/members contributing their time and talent beyond your capacity to use them?

As essential as they are, commitment to and passion for mission alone are not enough to generate volunteer/member engagement. The motives for volunteer service are as varied as the people who do it. It’s important to find roles that match skills, present challenges, provide a sense of accomplishment, allow for a degree of trial and error and generate the personally desired form of reward or recognition. In theory, this may seem elementary to many but in practice it often overlooked.

I am a volunteer; you can’t make me do anything.

Jim Paglia is President/CEO of In’s & Out’s, LLC and is a brand alignment strategist. He works exclusively by referral, in the area of competitive differentiation. His work includes projects for Alexander Haas, The Giving Institute and over 100 nonprofit organizations. For information, visit www.BrandsThatStand.com and Jim’s personal blog www.BrandsThatStand.blogspot.com.

Copyright © Jim Paglia 2013. All rights reserved. No portion of this article may be used without express written permission of the author.