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

Why Do Volunteer Organizations Die At The Top

March 4, 1996

Do you belong to an organization or board that is spinning its wheels and not accomplishing its mission? What is wrong? How do you turn things around?

Organizations often fill board leadership with dead weight. This includes people who are no longer willing to serve, attend meetings, pay dues or participate in the mission of the organization. Some leaders from the past have lost interest and have moved on to other priorities.

Often people are brought on a board as a figurehead for publicity value or status. They are big shots with big names and that is about it. They are too busy with their own lives and goals in other areas to do any real work for the organization.

Some people are brought on a board because they might be big donors or bring political or business connections to move the cause forward. If they really don't have a commitment to the spirit of the organization, the hoped-for boost doesn't happen. The people with energy, commitment and even financial generosity come from the rank and file who have "fire in their belly" about what the organization is trying to do.

Collectively, the sense of ownership and purpose is shared by a few people who find themselves surrounded by many people unwilling to do any "hands on" work.

Governing boards tend to fill with professionals with vested career interests while leaving out grassroots involvement from the people being served. Leadership can become class or financially oriented as it drifts away from grass root problems and concerns. Some key questions aren't asked because the right people aren’t at the table.

Some of these grassroots members are often priced out of board participation because of dues, registration fees and conventions held in distant or expensive locations. Boards overlook the fact that some members pay for expenses out of their own pockets instead of from an organizational budget. The true "out of pocket" costs involved in volunteering can eliminate the key people who need to keep the organization on track.

Here are some tips from keeping a volunteer organization from becoming stagnant and out of touch.

1. Undertake a housecleaning. Drop people from the board who are unwilling to make basic commitments of time, energy and resources.

2. Establish an attendance policy. Drop people after three or four absences. Key decisions can hinge on people who haven't been present to know the background on a particular issue.

3. Put your best people on the nominating committee. It is the most important board committee and an organization's fixture depends on it doing a good job. The nominating committee can also prevent the top leadership from gravitating into the hands of figurehead leaders who lack basic drive to move the organization forward.

People can be selectively recruited based on their willingness to be workers. The organization needs detail people who are willing to roll up their sleeves and take meaningful assignments. The nominating committee should try to maintain a mix of skills, perspectives and grassroots involvement to cover the main board functions and mission. Looking beyond the "usual suspects" might bring a dynamic quality to the board.

4. Spend more time in strategic planning and keep the mission focused. Precious volunteer time, resources and grassroots support are lost while the board is being reactive or drifting away from its basic mission. Hire and retain an executive director for vision, planning and willingness to stick to the organizational mission outlined by the board.

Have regular meetings of the entire board at least six times a year. Have other parts of the board meet on an as needed basis. Don't meet just during a crisis.

5. Focus on the finance and audit committees. This should be strictly a board function. The executive director and staff are in a conflict-of-interest situation. The board is financially and legally responsible. One rule of thumb: no surprises. It is too hard to react after the fact to financial problems that have mushroomed without board awareness.

6. Top leadership needs to listen and draw everyone out on issues. Leaders need to draw on the ideas and judgments of board members who are quiet and reserved as well as the more vocal ones. Board members need to work together and not allow just a few people to dominate the group process.

Overly quick, glib and intimidating people need to be reigned in and not allowed to dominate the decision- making process. Good leaders slow the train so that everyone can get on board and prevent quick decisions that might derail the train.

This column was based on insights of William Field, dean of the college of Agricultural Engineering at Purdue University.