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Board Members – Just Volunteers?

The Relationship Model

Imagine that your Board is faced with an unexpected crisis. The crisis may have been avoided had the Board acted definitively several months sooner. But everyone is busy with one’s own work and life. You have heard it several times already and have even thought it yourself. “We’re only volunteers. What do people expect?”

“We’re only volunteers” is often the reason given by boards and board members when things go wrong. It is very difficult for boards to hold themselves accountable at the best of times. So, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that when an organization gets into trouble that could have been prevented or caught before too much damage was done, the board will appeal to peoples’ understanding that “We’re only volunteers.”

“We’re only volunteers” seems to suggest that the board shouldn’t be held accountable for failure. If the board were paid for what they do, then perhaps they should be expected to take responsibility. But volunteers who are working out of the goodness of their hearts shouldn’t be held accountable.

This myth should be debunked for the sake of all boards who will recruit more volunteers in the years to come. Volunteers govern all registered charities.

Volunteers are motivated to accept their responsibility because the mission of the organization they agree to govern is aligned with their personal values. Their “payment” is the satisfaction of having done some good for an organization they believe is important. Volunteerism gives opportunity to learning, for getting experience that will benefit the volunteer in other areas and for many other benefits that people would not likely receive without going to some personal expense.

People should never give of their time when no “value” is added to them in return. The imbalance that results from giving without receiving too often reduces the commitment and effectiveness of the time that is given. “We’re only volunteers” seems to suggest that the expectations of people shouldn’t be very high, because good people are doing something for nothing. The satisfaction of volunteering IS the payment.

The reality that all charities are governed by volunteers doesn’t reduce the weight of the responsibility at all. Board members should receive personal satisfaction and fulfilment from the volunteer work they do. Thus, like anyone else who receives value for the work one does, the volunteer board member can and should be expected to shoulder the whole load.

Volunteerism is an opportunity for excellence, not an excuse for sloppiness.

Les Stahlke, President/CEO
GovernanceMatters.com Inc.