Leading a Volunteer Organization
By Avis French
In the past 60 years, I have worked 50 years in the workplace and served 35 years in volunteer organizations. From all those years of working in two such different environments, I have learned several techniques that enable me to be an effective leader in volunteer organizations.
Leaders of volunteer organizations must be able to bring out the best in a diverse group of people in a constantly-changing environment. Volunteers often join an organization because they have a passion for the selected population or program served by the organization, because they like working with people, because they are looking for a new opportunity for growth. Because the group is diverse, they often have a different, yea even a much different, perspective on those selected people or programs served by the volunteer organization, on the goals of the organization, on the best way to reach the goals of the organization. It often is a lengthy process to gain consensus from the group, to determine the exact needs of the selected population or program, to determine the best way for the organization to proceed. Good communication skills are essential in this situation. Not only are good speaking skills essential, so is the skill of active listening.
Leaders of volunteer organizations must be able to communicate to a diverse group of people both inside the organization and outside the organization. They must be able to “meet and greet,” give speeches, network, and generally be visible to others. In Toastmasters before we begin preparing a speech, we are trained to analyze your audience. With volunteer organizations, the concept of analyzing the audience has worked well for me. You want to be aware of how each of your target audiences will react – volunteers within the organization, those being impacted positively or negatively by the organization, members of the community who support the organization. All of these different audiences have a different perception of what your organization does, how you do it, when you do it, and why you do it.
Volunteer organizations rely on both public funds and private donations of cash and kind. Thus most volunteer organizations work in a small profit margin or even no profit. After all, volunteer organizations are often called “not for profit” organizations. Volunteer organizations need to demonstrate to everyone giving funds to the organization, be it public funds or private funds, that the organization is able to raise funds and to continue giving over a reasonable period of time. It is necessary to ensure that those providing both the public funds and the private donations are secure in the knowledge that the volunteer organization is balancing financial needs and social needs. It is equally important to ensure that the volunteers within the organization clearly understand the source of the funds available to the organization and any restrictions under which the funds can be used. As a leader of an educational foundation and as an officer of a scholarship board, both of which raised funds from both the public sector and the private sector, good communication skills were important. I had to be able to convince potential donors of the viability of their donation and keep the volunteers completely informed about the fund-raising efforts.
Leaders of volunteer organizations must have a working knowledge of the people or programs the organization is serving. Not only should they be knowledgeable about the needs of the selected entities, they must also be knowledgeable about successful programs that might impact those selected entities. They must be always aware of the changes in the environment outside of the organization and how those changes can impact the volunteer organization. As a Red Cross Blood Program Leader, I had to be aware of the needs of the local hospitals as well as the staffing needs of the local Red Cross chapter. As a leader of an educational foundation, I had to be informed about the goals of the local school board, the requirements of the local school district, and the desires of local parents. There were times when all these needs were not consistent, and I had to build consensus of all these entities in order to ensure that volunteer organizations could continue to function successfully.
Volunteer organizations are continually facing changes in the environment around them over which they have no control, changes that have a dramatic impact positively or negatively on the organization. Volunteer organizations can be impacted the government regulations and restrictions from such agencies as the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), state and local tax agencies, Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and similar agencies. Volunteer organizations must have a board of directors that can report to these outside agencies. Any changes in board structure, reporting officers, address changes, and other changes in the organization, as well as financial reports, must be reported on a regular basis to these government agencies. Not reporting or late reporting could result in the volunteer organization losing its tax-exempt status. As a chapter officer and council officer in NMA, I have often been asked to assist NMA chapters and councils in re-establishing their IRS tax exempt status. As a Red Cross Blood Program Leader, I have adjusted blood drive procedures because of changes in FDA blood regulations. As an officer in an educational foundation, I have adjusted funds distribution because the state or the national government Department of Education changed the funding designation of a school district.
Leaders of volunteer organizations must recognize the need for realistic planning. Plans include how to evolve as the needs of the selected people or programs change, government regulations change, donations ebb and flow. These realistic plans must include reaching consensus on common goals. Diverse people within the organization might have quite different perceptions of the needs of the selected population or program or the best way to meet the needs of those selected entities. Without agreement on common goals and processes and procedures, the volunteer organization can impede the progress of the organization’s good work. In Toastmasters, I was chair of the district’s community judging committee. Time and time again, the needs of community academic and speech competitions would change. For example, one year an event would be small and need only 8-10 judges; however, the very next year they would have 300 competitors register for a competition, such that the event would need 60 or more judges! I kept in constant contact all year with these organizations to ensure that I was on top of their changing needs and thus be able to accommodate their needs at the appropriate time.
Mentoring is another important skill for the leader of a volunteer organization. It means supporting and guiding the diverse people in the volunteer organization to learn and share not only what specific roles are important, but also why those roles are important. You want to match skill sets to organizational needs. The diverse people in the volunteer organization need to know how all the different parts of the organization fit together. Mentoring also includes providing feedback to the members of the organization as well as to the outside supporting organizations. Be sure that everyone knows the specific guidelines for their role. With many volunteer organizations, the board changes every year. For me, mentoring is a life-long effort. Once a mentor, always a mentor. This is particularly important for me with most boards changing members every year. As a life-long mentor for an organization, you keep the continuity of the organization intact. Recently I was recognized for serving as mentor to a Toastmasters club for 25 years. I still hear from people whom I mentored way back in 1984, when they have a new situation that makes them feel uncomfortable or uneasy.
If you have not participated in a program with a volunteer organization, I recommend that you reach out to one with which you have an affinity. You will step outside your comfort zone, expand your horizons, and practice some new skills along the way. You will find new and exciting ways to use all the skills you are learning by being an NMA member.