Published: May 30, 2008
Jennifer Selby Long, Selby Group
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How to Have a Lousy, Miserable, Failed Tenure as a Volunteer Board Member


Does that sound like a crazy headline coming from a management consultant? Well, after a long vacation, I’m in the mood for a little silliness.

Nearly all leaders extend their leadership beyond the workplace to head volunteer organizations throughout their lives, often as board members.

It doesn’t take long in your first volunteer leadership job to realize things are different from your paid leadership job, the most obvious being that you can’t use compensation as a motivator and absolutely nobody has to do their job for fundamental reasons like paying the mortgage.

The following tips are gleaned from years of experience, and the pain of trial and error. Don’t make the same mistakes other leaders, including this one, have made.

There are seven root causes of poor volunteer organization leadership. It’s not complicated and anyone can identify, understand, and prevent them. I’ve phrased them as tips just for the fun of it:

  1. Don’t plan ahead. That way, you can’t involve many people because so few of them will be available on short notice. Then you can enjoy the pleasure of being a martyr who’s always overworked and moans about how no one helps out.

  2. Don’t define the specific roles and responsibilities of each volunteer position. That way, few people will volunteer, since they will be leery that they’ll get everything dumped on them.

  3. Don’t get to know one another personally. Make it all business, so that when conflict erupts and there’s no personal financial motivation, people have even fewer incentives to stick around and work things out.

  4. Talk with only your fellow board members at meetings, since you don’t have much time together and it feels so good to catch up with the people you know instead of risking rejection by talking to people you don’t know. By not talking to strangers, you can keep the volunteer pipeline empty, so not only will you have no volunteers to help you out this year, you’ll have no one to take over your position next year.

  5. Once you do get a volunteer, it’s enough to just think about how much you appreciate their help. No need to actually tell them, but if you do, certainly don’t tell them very often. When you do communicate, make sure it’s to correct all of their mistakes. It’s their fault, after all. Throw in a little annoyance for the complete leadership package.

  6. Miss most of the Board conference calls and especially any face-to-face Board retreats, so that you can always work as an individual instead of with the full support of a strong team.

  7. Make sure that you think of recruiting your successor as the unpleasant task you’ll get to during the last month of your tenure. By all means, never assume you should invest time now in identifying suitable successors, slowly building relationships with them, recruiting them to test out their interest by volunteering on your team, and then asking one of them to step into your role in a well-planned transition.

That was fun. I love doing backward lists.

Now, please, get out there and do the opposite and have a wonderful, satisfying, successful tenure as a volunteer board member!



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