Volunteerism is an enormous economic force, yet it is never mentioned in business school or in economics departments.
--Walter Hoadley, former Chief Economist for the Bank of America
All-volunteer organizations (AVOs) are a major social and economic force but are seldom given credit for their work. Through all-volunteer organizations, people people conquer alcoholism, clean up beaches, care for the dying, coach basketball teams, advocate for gun control, rescue abused animals, raise their voices in song, publish literary journals, raise scholarship funds, preserve local history, serve as volunteer fire departments, organize protest marches, exchange heirloom seeds, host visitors from foreign countries, change public perception about the disabled, help adoptees and birth parents find each other, and in thousands of ways make our communities work better.
That these and countless other services are provided by volunteers and not by paid staff would come as a surprise to many. All-volunteer organizations are nonprofits where volunteers manage the organization and do most or all of the work. Some all-volunteer organizations do pay individuals: soccer leagues pay referees for Saturday games, historical preservation societies pay gardeners, and PTAs often pay after-school art teachers. The difference is that while all-volunteer organizations sometimes pay people to work, they don't pay people to manage. The job of management is done by the volunteer leaders, usually the board.
The term "board" means the group of people that runs the organization. Some groups elect officers, while in others anyone can join the "core group," or the "steering committee." Because many all-volunteer organizations haven't taken the legal steps to form a nonprofit corporation, there may not be a legal board of directors. Nonetheless, the term "board" is a convenient way of identifying this leadership group.
In a nonprofit with paid staff, an important role of the board is its governance function: to hold staff accountable to the community purpose. The board ensures that the organization complies with tax and legal requirements and uses funds efficiently towards the organization's priorities. In their supporting role, board members often assist staff in the work of the organization, whether that's helping to raise money, assisting with accounting or volunteering in a women's shelter, a thrift shop, or a community center.
In an all-volunteer organization, there are no paid managers. So it's often hard to distinguish between what the board does and what the organization does. For example, the same person- let's call her Cristina - may wear two "hats" when volunteering for the local garlic festival or the Martin Luther King, Jr. march. When she's wearing her board member hat, Cristina and other board members must obtain local permits and decide how much to spend on publicity. When she's wearing her volunteer staff hat, Cristina and the other volunteers may direct cars to parking areas and design the newspaper ad. It's confusing because it's the same Cristina, and because, 'whichever hat she's wearing, she's still a volunteer.
A big question facing AVOs is whether to strive to become a staffed organization, where ultimately most of the work is done by paid staff. For some all-volunteer organizations, there is a clear goal to "grow up"to be a large, staffed organization. The Sierra Club, NAACP, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, and countless other powerful organizations started as all-volunteer organizations, and many do most of their work through all-volunteer local chapters.) An all-volunteer organization that decides to engage paid staff needs to plan to phase in that staff and phase in changes in roles for board members.
Many AVOs stumble when they first hire someone to manage the organization. After years of acting in both management and governance roles, it's difficult for boards to find a way both to be supportive of management staff and provide adequate oversight or governance. Some AVOs hire an interim executive director or a program coordinator before hiring a director as a way for the organization and the board to make the change in stages. Others decide that they should hire fundraising staff rather than an executive director.
For other organizations, staying all-volunteer is an intrinsic part of its mission and heart. In church groups, volunteer rescue squads, or the PTA, the all-volunteer character of the organization is what makes participation satisfying and rewarding to many. AVOs need not feel that they should aspire to being a staffed organization. Rather than thinking, "We're all just volunteers," AVOs should be proud to say: "Being all-volunteer is right for us: paid staff would end up damaging our organization."
Two responsibilities, in particular, are uniquely important in AVOS: recruiting new leaders and turning over responsibilities to them. Sometimes long-time leaders and volunteers view the organization as "their baby" and are sharply critical and undermining of anyone whose approach is different. Letting go is difficult for them. They may find fault with new volunteers or refuse to allow newcomers to take on real responsibility. Board members who truly believe in the organization's work will want to ensure that they encourage new leaders (even if they seem to be doing it all wrong at first) and let the organization grow into its own future. (This may mean allowing current activities to die out and new activities to take their place.)
Some people with wonderful skills are reluctant to envision themselves in a board role. They may see board members as experts with special training. In fact, the boards of all-volunteer organizations are among the best places in the world to find training and become an expert in managing people and organizations. Current board members need to seek out valued volunteers and encourage them to stretch their skills by joining the board, and support them once they get there.
When the board presidency or other leadership position changes hands, many AVOs find that the organization's papers and obligations get lost in the move. At the very least, one sturdy box should be "the organizational safe." It can contain the official documents and be easily passed along from one president to the next. Some organizations have one box for each position of responsibility; these are ceremonially presented at a meeting or installation dinner to the incoming generation of leaders. (If everyone in the group is actively online, a service such as BOARDnetWORK or YahooGroups can also be useful for document storage.)
The second crucial job for the board is also intangible: the role the board plays in establishing a tone for the organization. Through example, leaders foster a spirit where others contribute gladly, not reluctantly or guiltily. And by paying scrupulous attention to financial matters, and ensuring that government and other paperwork is filed properly, the board demonstrates a commitment to doing things right.
Some of today's all-volunteer organizations will be tomorrow's multi-million dollar, influential and powerful organizations that change laws, change public opinion, and shape society. Others will continue to be the invisible glue that connects people'connections that form the framework for strong communities. In a thousand ways, board members in all-volunteer organizations are the grassroots leaders and "keepers of the spirit" upon which so much of community cohesiveness and social change depend.
We are pleased that this article is being published simultaneously in Blue Avocado, an online magazine for nonprofit people. You can subscribe free (it will come every 2 weeks) at www.blueavocado.org.