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Board Roles In Volunteer-led Organizations

Lori Halley 04 November 2013 2 comments

How do boards balance their governance and operations roles in a volunteer-led organization?

Reporting on a workshop he’d conducted for nonprofit executives and board members, Mitch Dorger cautioned his audience “to keep board members focused on governance responsibilities and out of operational matters”.  In the article in the Nonprofit Quarterly, Dorger suggested that one of the "generally accepted best practices ... is for boards to stay out of operations and focus instead on the areas of strategic direction, policy, oversight, and evaluation.”

But as one of Dorger's workshop participants asked, what happens “if the board is all there is—no staff and no other volunteers?”

Many small membership organizations are solely volunteer-led

Balancing their governance and operations role is a challenge for the leadership of many small membership organizations. One of the key findings from our Small Membership Insight Survey was that when it comes to leadership size does matter.  Our survey findings indicated that “over half (53.4%) of respondents reported that their organization was solely volunteer-led, with the rest of the respondents being divided evenly between “staff only” (23.3%) and “combination of volunteers and staff ” (23.3%).

When we dug a little deeper into our survey data, we confirmed that staffing was generally proportionate to membership size. The more members the organization has, the more staff. So it was not surprising to find out that on average, at these small membership organizations, just over 60% of the functions (e.g., finance, membership management, communications, etc.) are managed by volunteers, and 34% managed by staff and/or contractors.

Thoughts on maintaining board balance

So with our focus on small membership organizations, we read Mitch Dorger’s Nonprofit Quarterly article with great interest. As Dorger notes in the post, his initial advice to the small membership board trying to balance their role in managing operations along with their board governance role, “was to perhaps divide meeting agendas into two separate sessions—one on governance, and one on operational matters. Or as an alternative, ... separating them by holding different types of meetings at different times: one to address governance issues, and the other to address operational matters.”

In addition, Dorger advised:

“that no matter which of these approaches they decided on, the board chair had to keep the group clearly focused on the fact that they have two distinct duties. The first is to oversee operations in order to ensure the current success of the organization. The second is an equal or even greater responsibility to ensure the future success of the organization through such things as mission, vision, strategic direction, policy, public perception, financial sustainability, and more.”

After throwing the question open to the experts on an online discussion group that focuses on board governance, Dorger offers a number of other scenarios and suggestions (check out the NPQ article for the full details), with agreement on the following:

  • Operating without staff can be very difficult.

  • Operational matters can squeeze out governance matters if allowed to do so, and this should not be permitted to happen.

  • There is no single recommended way to separate the functions. It is a matter of board preference. But whichever technique is used, the board needs to discipline itself to understand and deal with both types of responsibilities, devoting the appropriate amount of time and attention to both.

What do you think? Does your organization have a solution?

Since our research tells us that there are many small organizations facing this challenge, so we’d love to hear about any solutions your volunteer-led membership organization has found. How does the board of a volunteer-led organization balance their dual roles of operations and governance? While each organization needs to find its own solution that meets its own unique needs, it’s always so insightful to find out how our peers have tackled issues we might be facing.

Let us know how your volunteer-led board manages to balance your dual operations and governance roles in the comments below.

Image source:
 Conference - courtesy of BigStockPhoto.com

Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot] Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]

Posted by Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]

Published Monday, 04 November 2013 at 8:30 AM


  • Lorna Visser said:

    Monday, 16 December 2013 at 3:12 PM
    In my experience, there are three types of Board members. The ones who thought they were only going to have to go to 4 meetings a year and bring brownies -- staggered when they find themselves in the midst of a controversial issue. At the other end of the spectrum, the know-it-all blowhards who use their fellow Board members as a captive audience and don't follow through on any of their big ideas. And then, bless them, the perfect volunteer board member who is thoughtful and dedicated, does what she says she will do, speaks up when necessary, has a backbone but also knows how to pick her fights.
  • Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot] Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]

    Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot] said:

    Monday, 16 December 2013 at 3:44 PM
    Lorna - thanks for sharing.
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