What Are the Board's Responsibilities for Volunteers?

Susan Ellis has one of the smartest voices in volunteerism, and she talks here about a neglected topic on boards: strategic support at the board level for the critical volunteer workforce in our organizations.

Does your organization involve volunteers in service delivery? (It already involves at least some volunteersaEUS-aEUSon the board!) If so, when did the board last focus attention on this subject?

Don't allow volunteer involvement to be the invisible personnel issue. If something is neglected, it may thrive by accident. But proactive support of volunteer involvement dramatically increases its potential achievement level. So what can a board of directors do?

1. Regularly devote time to the subject of volunteers at board meetings. This sends a strong message to everyone that volunteers are important. Develop thoughtful policies about and goals for volunteer participation. Budget adequately to support the work volunteers do. Become as involved in "raising people" as in raising money.

2. Develop an organizational vision for volunteer involvement and set standards in line with that vision. If you think of frontline volunteers as friendly but low-skilled helpers, that's exactly whom you'll attract. On the other hand, if you make it clear that community participation is an important element of your organization's work, that volunteers are a part of your resource mix, and that you expect to involve the best, highest-skilled people as volunteersaEUS-aEUSthen you'll get that type of volunteer.

3. Ask for and analyze data about volunteer involvement. Make sure you get reports on the types and scope of volunteer activities. Recognize that this is necessary to have a complete picture of the organization and of the resources available to it. Ask questions about what volunteers do and make it clear that the board expects the best!

4. Participate in volunteer recruitment. The more people spreading the word about volunteer opportunities, the better. Just as board members should be alert to fundraising potential, they should be on the lookout for ways to recruit volunteers. For example, each board member can

a) Recommend or refer prospective volunteers, with the understanding that they must go through the regular application process just like any other prospective volunteer.

b) Distribute recruitment materials at your workplace or during visits to community sites.

c) Identify company newsletters, special events or meetings, display booths, e-mail list managers (such as LISTSERV), or other ways to communicate with your colleagues. Be a visible advocateaEUS-aEUSexplain why you chose to volunteer on the board of this particular organization.

5. Take part in volunteer recognition events. Attendance by board members shows other volunteers that they are valued at the top. Recognition events provide a great opportunity to mingle and talk with supporters of your organization, whose opinions may prove illuminating. Once at the event, contribute to its success with active participation, not observation from a segregated table. And, remember, you have also earned the thank-yous given to the organization's volunteers!

6. Make volunteers as visible as possible. Make sure your annual report includes volunteer accomplishments. Incorporate information about volunteer opportunities into your organization's web site for both recruitment of new volunteers and recognition of current ones. Make sure volunteers are included in any public forum or media outreach and as agency representatives when appropriate.

7. Create a board committee on volunteerism. Some boards form a volunteer program advisory committee to offer ongoing advice, expertise, community contacts, and other resources to the volunteer program staff. In the absence of paid coordinating staff, you may want a board volunteer development committee to plan the outreach strategies necessary to recruit the best volunteers. If yours is a membership association, volunteer-related issues may need to be considered by several committees, including the nominating committee and the membership development committee. Educate yourself about the growing volunteer management field.

Too many organizations are thoughtless when it comes to volunteers. Help your board to become thoughtful on the subject. It will make a real difference.

Susan J. Ellis is the president of Energize, Inc., a Philadelphia-based consulting firm focusing on volunteerism, and a co-publisher of the excellent newsletter e-Volunteerism.com. This article was adapted with permission from From the Top Down: The Executive Role in Volunteer Program Success by Susan J. Ellis (Energize, 1996). You can order the book and reach Susan at www.energizeinc.com.

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Comments (7)

  • Great article Susan. Your point about budgeting adequately to support the work that volunteers do hit a chord with me. Most organizations I have worked with seem to view volunteer development as the volunteer coordinator’s domain. Most boards are, and should be, keenly involved in the development and oversight of the fundraising budget. Yet many seem surprised when I point out that volunteer development costs are properly classified within the fundraising functional classification. It’s telling of a prevalent perception of volunteers.

    Jun 02, 2009
  • I would add: Know your organization's potential liability, responsibility and protection or coverage for screening, orienting, training, transporting, supervising and providing security. Whether volunteers help with day care for children, climb a ladder, drive a client to dialysis, or operate a chain saw. Ask the "what if" questions for organization's exposure for having volunteers or approving or assigning them to do XYZ. It's necessary risk management. Yes, a challenge for smaller nonprofits. States vary some in law on how protected or excused volunteers are when things go wrong.

    Jun 02, 2009

  • For a complementary take on volunteer management, see our free resource from our Web site: http://www.theschimellode.net/documents/VolunteerManagement.pdf

    Among other sources there is a self-assessment for nonprofits that may also be of use/interest.

    We have just changed the mission of The Schimel Lode, named after my parents. We now provide a yearly grant to encourage innovation and collaboration for the public good in the DC area.  In this time of constraint, we decided to change from capacity building which we called effectiveness being done by over 50 in this area, to a focus that we think may be getting little attention: the risky, edgy efforts.

    Keep up your fine work!

    Jun 03, 2009
  • Anonymous

    I'm a little late to the game but I could use some expertise in the whole HR realm of volunteer management. I've got a baker's dozen of blog writers that are working as volunteers and I'm having a hard time keeping them busy. Weird right? Are there any work flow management tips you all have?

    My site is http://www.topforextradingsoftware.net/

    Send me an email or leave a comment if you have any thoughts.


    Jan 14, 2011
  • These make total sense when it comes to volunteers, thanks for sharing them.
    Jay Pleas

    Nov 21, 2009
  • Anonymous

    I am seeking some guidance related to developing a structure for members/volunteers that engages people in the community in meaningful engagement with child abuse prevention activities. This engagement would go beyond a loose, volunteer association and include representation on the governing council and some autonomy to create projects. I would appreciate hearing if any non profits have had experience doing this.

    Jan 05, 2012
  • IRS mileage rate for 2013 is 56.5 cents a mile according to www.irs.gov. (not 58.5 cents). I copied this from www.irs.gov.

    Beginning on January 1, 2013, the standard mileage rates for the use of a car (also vans, pickups or panel trucks) will be:

    • 56.5 center per mile for businees miles driven.
    • 24 centers per mile driven for medical or moving purposes
    • 14 cents per mils driven in service of charitable orgnaizations.
    Feb 17, 2013

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