Dear Nonprofiteer, When is a Board member not a Board member?

Dear Nonprofiteer:

I came across your website as I was searching for information on Board members’ volunteering in programs. I’m wondering if you might have some advice on a situation I’m trying to handle.

I work in a service agency, which relies heavily on volunteers. Recently, one of our volunteers became a Board member. She has continued volunteering in the program and a couple of issues have come up that the program director would normally address quickly and easily with a volunteer. However, because this volunteer is now also a Board member, there is a hesitation because she is somewhat of a boss.

The issue has been brought to the attention of the Board president.  He and the program director have different ideas on how to handle the situation.  The president wants to handle the situation one on one because he doesn’t want to discourage other members from volunteering more.  The program director wants a limit on how much time a Board member can spend volunteering in a program.

I’m the Executive Director and can see both sides.  I’d like for the president to deal with it one on one, but to then adopt a policy/guidelines for Board members as volunteers to avoid conflicts of interest.  I can see where this particular person likes to make decisions and that easily oversteps the program director’s role.

I’ve been searching on line for a policy around this, but have found nothing.I would greatly appreciate any insight or resources that you might have to help with such an issue.

Sincerely,

Clowns to the Left of Me, Jokers to the Right

Dear Clowns:

This is only a problem because of what seems to be a fundamental misconception about the role of Board members, as opposed to the Board as a whole.  No individual Board member is “somewhat of a boss;” in fact, from the standpoint of the program director, the only boss she has is you, the Executive Director.  You, on the other hand, answer to the Board as a whole, and the Board as a whole has the right to hire, evaluate, discipline and if necessary fire you if it’s not satisfied with the job you’re doing.

But there’s a reason the Nonprofiteer keeps repeating “as a whole . . . as a whole.”  Individual Board members have no supervisory responsibility for personnel, even when they’re members of the Personnel Committee.  Personnel decisions belong to the Executive Director, except for decisions about the Executive Director’s tenure which belong to the Board—all together now—as a whole.

So the Nonprofiteer doesn’t see any reason why there should be a policy prohibiting Board members from volunteering in the program, or limiting the amount of time they can spend doing so.  What there should be is

  • a statement by the Board president to the volunteer in question that there seems to have been some confusion, what with her going from volunteer to Board and back again, and that it needs to be clear that when she’s a volunteer she’s not a Board member.  He doesn’t need to go into the subtleties of her general lack of power as an individual Board member.  He just needs to tell her that in the land of program, the program director is king, and thus that she should expect the program director to treat her exactly as she was treated before she joined the Board—that is, to supervise her.
  • another statement by the Board president to the program director reiterating what he said to the volunteer and reassuring  her that she’s not dealing with “somewhat of a boss” and should therefore not hesitate to resolve the problem with this volunteer as with any other.  And
  • a third statement by the Board president to the entire Board at the next Board meeting, leaning again on the “confusion” meme: “We’ve had some questions about the circumstances under which Board members are welcome as program volunteers.  So I thought I’d make clear that each of us is welcome under all circumstances—but when we’re program volunteers, we shed our Board identities like fur in the summertime.  None of us is enforcing policy, or overseeing staff, or evaluating operations—we’re just volunteering.  Which ought to be a great relief for each of us!”  Thus he’ll encourage Board members to volunteer without having them confuse their collective governance role with their individual participation role.

The reason you can’t find any relevant policies is that this isn’t an occasion for policies—it’s an occasion for common sense applied to clearly-understood roles.  Or, in other words, there’s no need for a conflict-of-interest policy because individual Board members have no recognizable interests; their task is to participate in group decision-making about what’s good for the agency.

If you also have a Board Personnel Committee that tries meddling with individual personnel decisions (as opposed, say, to writing policies and procedures applicable to all personnel), then you have a bigger version of the same problem and need to have a bigger discussion about the difference between the Board—what?—as a whole and individual Board members.

But there’s no reason either the problem or the discussion should lead you to limit Board members’ participation as program volunteers.   As a Board member told the Nonprofiteer just last night, the main satisfaction Board members get from their often thankless jobs is contact with the people you serve.  Unless your goal is to produce unhappy Board members and a short-handed program director, you don’t want to restrict or prohibit that contact.

Or, more pithily: damn the Board member!  Full speed ahead!

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2 Responses to “Dear Nonprofiteer, When is a Board member not a Board member?”

  1. Jevan Says:

    Generally I agree with your reply…including: “The reason you can’t find any relevant policies is that this isn’t an occasion for policies…”

    However, I’d add: As Executive Director you might want to reflect on how recruitment of board members happens, do they get a clear job description? Do they sign off on expectations?
    Once they become a member of the board do they get a through board member handbook/manual? What training do they receive?

    I’m guessing that in this case we could do a better job, and if I were the ED, I’d make it a priority going forward. I’d also try to put in place some method for board continuing education and if you don’t already have one, set up a system where the board as a whole and the members individually evaluate performance. We as professionals need to make better efforts to ensure board member excellence.

    • Nonprofiteer Says:

      Excellent points all, especially the first one: if people are clear about what’s expected of them before they agree to serve, they’ll be less likely to ignore or misconstrue their obligations once they’re serving.

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