A Volunteer’s Guide to Staffing Your Own Board

As a governance consultant, I often find myself straddling two vastly different realities for nonprofit organizations. On one end, I see large, usually national nonprofits with stable funding and professional staff, where managing and supporting governance is commonly led by the chief staff executive. On the other side, there are smaller, often localized nonprofits that are either entirely volunteer-run or have so little staff that managing the governance function falls entirely on the plates of volunteers. 

Both types of organizations have their own challenges when it comes to managing governance. The larger organizations tend to benefit from streamlined management processes and can usually invest in digital technologies that make managing governance simple and not burdensome. At the same time, those organizations can struggle to see governance as a big enough priority to devote adequate resources (i.e. staffing and expertise) to be managed well. This pales in comparison, however, to those organizations that not only lack a basic management infrastructure, but also don't know where to begin when it comes to developing systems and processes that ensure smooth governance operations.

Because let's be real for a minute - a great deal of normative best-practice literature out there (#BoardSource; #ASAE; #me) talk a lot about the role of volunteer board members vis a vis the role of a chief executive and staff. While I don't necessarily dispute the principles espoused by that kind of literature, I do worry that parsing out roles in terms of “board vs. staff” runs the risk of alienating the nonprofit leaders who, by necessity, wear multiple hats and take on several different roles in their organization.

Another issue I have with literature that normalizes a distinct separation between board and staff, is that it seems to promote the long-held orthodoxy in the nonprofit sector that governance is "owned" by the board - and only the board! Now, I don't have enough time here to unpack all of the reasons why I think that’s problematic. Suffice it to say, I have come to find that relegating governance to an ivory tower can send staff the message that they shouldn't have a stake in or even care much about how governance is run and should be supported.

Leaders of volunteer-run organizations don't have the luxury of hanging a velvet rope between the domain of the board and the domain of staff. It is up to them to both do the governance and support the governance which can be daunting task. So, what kind of support can be given to those leaders who don't know where to begin when it comes to both governing and setting themselves up to govern well?

First of all - I think that best practice literature out there that promotes board effectiveness and good governance practices need not be ignored! In fact, the boards of smaller nonprofits need to educate themselves on what they can and should be doing for their organizations both legally and strategically. On top of that, volunteer-run nonprofit leaders would do well to educate themselves in some fundamentals of management (especially financial management) to better understand the ways in which their work, while voluntary, is still subject to a number of regulations and liabilities that professional managers would typically assume in larger organizations.

So far as managing governance goes, I think there is a lot to be said for setting volunteer leaders up for success by sharing the strategies that work for governance professionals (like myself), and adapting those practices to the unique needs of a nonprofit that is literally running on donated human capital. Here are some strategies I think can help volunteer-run organizations establish a more efficient governance system: 
  • Establish an annual governance calendar that includes board meetings, committee meetings, nominations/elections and appointment timelines, financial benchmarks (i.e. budgets, audits, Form-990s, etc.) Disseminate the calendar widely to board members and other volunteer leaders involved in governing and managing the nonprofit. Be ready to start your governance year with a general understanding of what needs to happen and when.

  • Delegate governance and management roles clearly, especially for officers that may need to assume responsibilities above and beyond their official role description. For example, the bylaws may say nothing about the President's responsibility to develop meeting agendas or the Secretary's responsibility for facilitating electronic votes. Those tasks are often implied but not always explicit in officer role descriptions. Clarifying and documenting those duties that are operational in nature can go a long way to ensuring consistent execution as individuals rotate in and out of their leadership roles.

  • Standardize processes and build them into operating procedures (SOPs) to foster efficiency as well as make such activities easier to plan. Relevant governance processes worth standardizing can include:
    • Meeting agenda planning, material preparation and distribution. 
    • Templates for agendas, materials and minutes 
    • Motions, resolutions and proposals for the board's consideration 
    • Budget development and approval process 
    • Annual audit and Form-990 review 
    • Nominations, elections and appointments 
    • Board fundraising activities

  • Create a central document repository to keep bylaws, minutes, policies, procedures and other records. Take a look at your document retention policy and bake in some practice regarding where and how records will be kept in perpetuity, especially if access to those records might have potential to change hands every one or two years. Some organizations conveniently use their websites to post documents and make them available to a variety of stakeholders. Just know that an alternate shared drive or library may be needed to keep and maintain records that the board doesn't want to share publicly.

  • Take time to pass the baton or hand over the jump drive, so to speak. In larger organizations, staff can easily give two weeks’ notice and leave some desktop procedures behind on a shared drive. Leaders in volunteer-run organizations need to be more intentional about both handing off documentation and sharing some of the unwritten rules and assumptions that have guided their work. One way to facilitate this is to adopt some kind of shadowing/mentoring approach to director/officer succession. Another might be to have a meeting or social gathering specifically dedicated to transitioning leadership roles. 

As nonprofit leaders consider some of these strategies for managing governance, it’s important to keep in mind the role of board recruitment in identifying individuals who can handle the total commitment of both governing and operating the organization – including the board’s activities. Armed with the right people and useful strategies, volunteer-run nonprofits are capable of doing so much to further the causes and communities they serve.


Rachel Miller-Bleich, MA, CAE, a nonprofit governance consultant, is Principal and Owner of MillerBleich Consulting, LLC. Learn more at www.millerbleichconsulting.com


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