The Volunteer Conundrum

While volunteering can be satisfying, it also has to be effective and meet a variety of criteria

For years I have been a volunteer, first with environmental organizations and now with a “friends of library” non-profit. I’ve been the treasurer for more than eight years (the only executive board member allowed to serve more than two terms). As a rule, volunteers are generous in time and spirit, motivated by doing good things, helping causes they believe in and benefiting from the social aspects. Some are more intelligent and experienced in ways — such as management in business or education — that make them natural leaders, typically as committee chairs and board members.

Some volunteers have either never worked or stopped doing so long before they reached retirement age. They tend to be less familiar with management/administration and may even be hostile to these, seeing them as tools of oppression used to the detriment of the common people — workers. Yes, even if the organization/institution is a public library with multiple branches. These individuals are like flower children from the 1960s who never came to terms with reality. They like bottom-up collaboration.

As with successful businesses and organizations, a combination of collaboration and leadership is important to volunteer non-profits (as well as non-profits with paid staff). Those drawn to non-profits tend to cherish collaboration, with the belief that the more who collaborate the better. In reality, without effective leadership, collaboration can become a source of indecision and conflicting points of view that slow down and even prevent innovation and change. This is a problem, because while volunteering can be satisfying, it also has to be effective and meet a variety of criteria.

Two critical tasks facing executive board members is finding sufficient numbers of volunteers who will remain so and hoping some of them will become committee chairs/board members and even successors for executive board members when for one reason or another they themselves choose to step down or simply have served their allotted number of terms. Given that board members are often of retirement age, aging in place can either be graceful or problematic, particularly when it comes to changes in policy, process, procedure.

Accompanying all of this is the widely held belief that volunteers cannot be fired, terminated or whatever you want to refer to it as. This is incorrect, and there are numerous reasons why it can happen…and should. It’s not pragmatic, not sensible, not wise to allow a troublesome volunteer and/or board member to remain with a non-profit. It causes all kinds of personality and functionality issues. Volunteering isn’t a license to be difficult, destabilizing or disagreeable. Waiting for volunteers to volunteer to leave is not always in the best interest of the organization.

Despite what are likely good intentions, not everyone is well-suited to volunteering. Sometimes ego gets in the way. Being on the board can be viewed as enhanced status by some volunteers. Boards become too large and inefficient because the reward for being a committee chair or in charge of a task is being on the board. While the executive board I’m on has only four people, the full board consists of two dozen, double what it should be or needs to be. And there are some board members who simply have no need or reason to be there. Indeed, some members chairing tasks actually resign from the board itself to avoid being at meetings but continue to do their work.

Volunteers are proof that many people care about helping make things better in whatever way they can, and want an opportunity to participate in doing good things for a worthy cause. But non-profit volunteer organizations need to guide and direct both how volunteers function in the tasks that need to be accomplished and the manner in which the organization is managed. This is simply the most pragmatic way to ensure that the good work of volunteers is effective and sustainable when circumstances change…as they inevitably do.