Managing the dualism of being a non-profit board volunteer

dissonanceI recently came to the conclusion that there is a strange dualism surrounding the roles and responsibilities for a volunteer serving on a non-profit board. These two different roles can compete with each other and create a weird destructive dysfunction if non-profit staff don’t do their job and keep things in check.

A few months ago I witnessed something that my mind just couldn’t process, and it has been rolling around inside my head ever since. Let me try to summarize it:

  • Non-profit staff recruit a volunteer to join their board.
  • The volunteer happily joins.
  • Staff work hard to get the volunteer engaged in various projects.
  • The volunteer happily gets engaged.
  • Staff try engaging the volunteer at an action plan level of a particular project (e.g. specific tasks, deadlines, etc).
  • The volunteer become the chairperson.
  • Instead of doing what is expected of a chairperson, the volunteer turns around and acts like staff works for them and starts re-assigning tasks to staff.

A little too abstract. OK, let me provide an example to clear things up.

Once upon a time, a board volunteer agreed to chair a special event committee. Once they agreed to provide leadership to the committee, they started tasking staff with doing things that might otherwise be considered the role of the chair. Here are a few examples . . . 1) please email the committee and tell them I wish to meet at a certain time and location, 2) please recruit the following volunteers to sit on my committee, 3) please check on a certain volunteer and make sure they are doing what they said they would do.

In this example, staff recruit a volunteer chairperson to help them accomplish some work. The end result is that the volunteer acts like staff works for them and sees their role/responsibilities as telling staff what to do. Staff scratch their head wondering why they needed to recruit a volunteer because they know what needs to happen . . . they needed help doing those things and not someone to tell them what to do.

Believe it or not, I see this happen all the time and I now have a theory.

The following is an excerpt from Guidestar on the subject of non-profit board roles and responsibilities:

“Nonprofit board members have two basic responsibilities—support and governance—each requiring different skills and expertise. In the role of “supporter” board members raise money, bring contacts to the organization, and act as ambassadors to the community. Equally important, the “governance” role involves protection of the public interest, being a fiduciary, selecting the executive director and assessing his/ her performance, ensuring compliance with legal and tax requirements, and evaluating the organization’s work.”

I think I see a weird dissonance starting to form between these two basic responsibilities.


Well, one of the basic roles of a nonprofit board volunteer is “SUPPORT” . . . which I read as rolling up ones sleeves and helping get stuff done. The other role is “GOVERNANCE” . . . which I read as making sure certain things are getting done and providing some oversight.

Am I over-generalizing to make a point? YES, but I think I am still going somewhere.

If clarity isn’t established from the very beginning, it is reasonable to expect confusion. It is from here that I believe situations and examples that I provided earlier grow legs and get ugly.

If non-profit staff want to avoid these weird sand trap situations, they need to be serious about using best practices when it comes to volunteer identification, recruitment, and management.

  • Use a written job description
  • Seriously engage volunteers in orientation and continuous training opportunities
  • Invest time in evaluation and work on creating a culture of honest feedback

I think it is also important to mention here that providing a volunteer with a written job description is not where the magic occurs. Learning and understanding comes from the frank and honest discussion that occurs during the recruitment meeting. For example, the job description is the “MEANS” and not the “ENDS“.

Have you ever had to deal with a situation like this? How did you fix it? What tools and processes do you use to set expectations up front with volunteers to avoid confusion and role blurring down the road? Please use the comment box below to share your thoughts. We can all learn from each other.

Here’s to your health!

Erik Anderson
Founder & President, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC!/eanderson847

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