Include volunteer professionals on your board

Volunteer board members

Do you have any volunteer professionals on your board of directors?

I saw a question on LinkedIn the other day by Tracey O’Neill regarding why the boards of volunteer engaging organizations don’t recruit volunteer professionals. It really got me thinking.

Volunteers make up by far the largest portion of most organizations’ workforce. They are also usually the ones who have the greatest impact on the mission. You would think that having a volunteer engagement professional on the board would be a priority.

Yet it’s not. In fact, it’s rare indeed that a board includes someone who understands volunteer engagement. And that person was usually brought on because of other skills. I know, that’s how I ended up on the boards I serve on.

Why would that be? The most likely reason is a simple lack of awareness.

While most boards of directors are aware that volunteers are valuable, few understand that there is a specific field of study around engaging them. Fewer still are aware that there are credentialed professionals in that field that they could recruit.

Even if they are aware of the profession, many don’t see it as valuable. A board, focused on fiscal responsibility and high level governance, may not fully appreciate how properly supporting and leveraging the skills of volunteers contributes to the success of the organization. Or it may not realize how challenging it is to engage them effectively. Many people still see volunteer engagement as an entry-level role, rather than the high-level leadership position that it is.

Yet the benefits of having a volunteer specialist on a board of directors are huge. Here are the top three:

1. Improved organizational outcomes

Volunteer professionals can help the board design policies and processes that strengthen the volunteer program. And the volunteer program, as mentioned before, impacts the mission more than anything else.

2. Better board engagement

Board members are volunteers themselves. Thus, having someone on your board who understands how to support, encourage and motivate volunteers can lead to improved recruitment, retention and attendance rates on the board. And that can only lead to good things for everyone.

3. Organizational sustainability

Most organizations around the world are struggling with higher demand and fewer volunteers. Having a volunteer professional on your board of directors can improve recruitment and retention of volunteers throughout the organization. By helping to shift the board’s focus toward the volunteer program, they can improve the sustainability of the entire organization.

This is all stuff you probably already know. What may not be so obvious is what to do about it.

Start with changing your board of directors' perception

When you talk with directors or trustees, use words about yourself, your role in the organization, and the profession as a whole that highlight the value. Refer to yourself as a leader. Associate leading volunteers with managing human resources. Talk about engaging volunteers as an accredited profession. Refer to people in similar roles in other organizations as colleagues. Mention conferences or associations that focus on the profession. If you see and refer to yourself as a valuable professional, those around you will start seeing you in that light – and that includes the board.

Advocate for your program

As all leaders do, stand up for your program. Ask to speak with the board of directors about the volunteer program’s needs, and use the opportunity to highlight its benefits. Just as managers fight to get funding or budget space for their departments, you need to do the same for yours. Hmmm, maybe referring to the “volunteer department” rather than “volunteer program” will emphasize its value. Either way, by presenting to the board you and your professional colleagues will start being seen as a leaders. As key drivers of the organization rather than just minor cog wheels.

Get on a board

Even though your organization may not (currently) specifically recruit for volunteer professionals on your board, most boards are under strength and would be very welcoming to anyone willing to serve. Obviously, because of conflict of interest issues, you won’t be able to serve on the board of the organization you work for.

You can, however, serve on another one that matches your values and your interests. In fact, consider buddying up. Apply to serve on the board of directors of a colleague’s organization, and have them apply to serve on yours.

Until we have a seat at the board table – and make our voices heard at that table – volunteer engagement professionals, and the impact of the volunteers themselves, will continue to be undervalued.

Take your seat at the table. Let me know if you need help.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

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About the Author

Karen Knight has provided volunteer recruitment, engagement and training for not-for-profit organizations for more than 25 years.

Her professional life has spanned many industries, working in both the private and public sectors in various leadership positions.

Through her passion for making a difference in the world, she has gained decades of experience in not-for-profits as a leader and a board member.

Karen served in Toastmasters International for more than 25 years, in various roles up to district director, where she was responsible for one of the largest Toastmasters districts in the world.

She oversaw a budget of $250,000 and 300 individual clubs with more than 5,000 members. She had 20 leaders reporting directly to her and another 80 reporting to them—all volunteers.

Karen currently serves as vice-president of the board of directors for the Kamloops Therapeutic Riding Association.

After many years working and volunteering with not-for-profits, she found many leaders in the sector have difficulty with aspects of volunteer programs, whether in recruiting the right people, assigning those people to roles that both support the organization’s mission and in keeping volunteers enthusiastic.

Using hands-on experience, combined with extensive study and research, she helps solve challenges such as volunteer recruitment, engagement and training for not-for-profit organizations.

Karen Knight can be contacted at [email protected], or through her website at https://karenknight.ca/.

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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