Dr. Val FarmerDr.Val
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Six Ways To Get The Most From A Volunteer Board

February 17, 1997

Are you a volunteer charged with leadership responsibilities to accomplish a major goal using other volunteers? How do you motivate them? How do you keep them involved and working hard? How do your get the most from your board?

Here are six principles to consider.

1. Leadership begins at the top. You have to be willing to show the way. The top people have to be willing to work hard and provide an example of commitment and follow through. Whatever glory comes your way should be shared and deflected to others who are also doing the work. Get down into the trenches and lead by example.

Part of leadership is oversight, accountability and follow through. People want to know that their efforts are noticed, appreciated and reviewed. They also want to have a resource available to them to bounce off ideas and problems.

If you fall short of a goal, protect people's egos. Work out conflict and differences outside of public view. Use criticism sparingly and constructively. Let them critique and evaluate their own performance.

Give the big picture. Share the vision and the challenges of what you are trying to accomplish. Let the rank and file share in measurement and evaluation of how well the organization is doing toward meeting goals. Good morale depends on pride in the outfit and confidence in the leaders.

2. Selection of board members. The nominating committee is the most important committee on the board. Search and recruit board members who are doers and self-starters who know how to work and take responsibility.

Dead wood on a board robs others of motivation and creates unfair work and disappointing results. If the job isn't being done, it is better to judiciously remove someone from a key role than to try to change them. Find another spot where their efforts can be used to better advantage.

Don't go for the big name or figurehead. Go for the worker who knows how to serve and is good with details. Find people who are community-minded, who value the mission of your organization and who understand when group goals supersede personal interest.

Choose a diversity of people with varied talents who bring different strengths to the board. When they are on the board, play to their strengths. Put them in the right spot and let them shine, doing what they do best. Their own involvement in the organization should meet an intrinsic need or they won't stay long.

3. Delegate legitimate work. Don't concentrate your leadership in the executive committee. Have the courage and confidence to delegate key responsibilities and be willing to live with the results. With overall guidelines and good follow-up, you can be a partner but not a main player in the process.

Put your best people as chairpersons of key committees and focus your leadership on them. If you have good leadership at the committee and subcommittee level good things will happen. Meet with them often and support their efforts.

To feel like their time is well spent, people need "red meat" - real issues and activities where they can make a difference. If you have a rubber stamp board, they will lose interest or go out of their way to belabor small points to justify their time.

4. Have organized planned, well run meetings. Nobody likes to have their time wasted, especially when they are volunteers. Have a planned agenda and a moderator who knows how to keep a meeting moving. There should be fairness and opportunities for democratic expression of opinions without getting bogged down in repetition or unnecessary detail.

Procedural issues should be dispatched quickly. The bulk of the time should go to issues that benefit from the synergy and creativity that can emerge from the group process. Sufficient blocks of time can be allocated for discussion of complicated topics.

5. Volunteering is a social opportunity. Part of the reward of volunteers is the association and friendship that come with the experience. Meetings and activities should be laced with fun and good humor. Comedians and sharp witted volunteers have their place.

People develop relationships that are rewarding in their own right. Social events can bring spouses into the picture. Organizational involvements should be a pleasant addition to family life and not a competing source of loyalty.

6. Give recognition and appreciation. You don't have financial incentives to hand out. You have something some people find more valuable - recognition and appreciation. Hand out "warm fuzzies" freely and frequently. Trumpet success. Give awards and plaques. Publicize good efforts. Feature volunteers in newsletters and newspaper stories. The more hoopla, the better.

Give out as many perks as you can ethically justify within the budget - dinner meetings, banquets, special speakers, Christmas gifts, etc. Rotate travel to regional or national conferences. Plan retreats in comfortable and memorable locations.

Don't short change this part of the organization. This is money well spent as long the overall goals remain in focus and the mission of the organization is being met. Finding room for play and perks can be a little gravy for those who give much more than they will ever receive.