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Managing volunteers Part 2: To keep board members engaged, put them to work!

Managing volunteers Part 2: To keep board members engaged, put them to work!

July 31, 2023
Howard Cohen

Managing volunteers requires treating them, well, like volunteers. What does that mean exactly? First, it means recognizing that their involvement on a board or committee is freely chosen and can be withdrawn at any time for any reason without penalty or formal (as opposed to social) consequences. 

Volunteers are not the chair’s direct reports and should not be managed as if they were. In contrast to a team of direct reports, incentives based on salary, bonuses and evaluations are irrelevant. Most people do not serve on a board for the prospect of compensation.

Why, then, do volunteers serve? Why do they take on tasks that are sometimes difficult and time-consuming? I believe there is a multi-part answer to these questions. First, volunteers serve because they believe in the mission of the organization. They share the values that are realized by the organization in the course of doing its work. If the organization is a food pantry (for example), volunteers presumably serve because they want to contribute to reducing hunger. Their hearts go out to families and individuals who are food insecure, and they may wish to do what they can to make the world a little less difficult for the pantry’s clientele. For people who value a world where others do not suffer needlessly, supporting a food pantry is a great way to act on their values.

A second part of the answer to why these volunteers serve is that they recognize that realizing their values in concert with others is much more powerful than trying to realize them on their own. One could, I suppose, identify a family in need and bring them groceries on a weekly basis. While this may be one way to reduce hunger in a community, it has a severely limited impact. Working with an organization that is structured to provide food to large numbers of people is a far better way to magnify one’s impact in reducing hunger. Organizations can reach more people in need, raise more funds to address food insecurity, and address it over a greater period of time. Being part of an organization that lives these values is sure to be more satisfying to the volunteer than going it alone.

There are, of course, other pragmatic reasons why people sometimes voluntarily serve on boards of nonprofit organizations. They may join at the request of peers or colleagues; they may be trying to establish themselves in a community; they may be seeking to make professional contacts. Such considerations do not diminish the service and may reinforce commitments to more noble values.

Recognition of the values commitments of voluntary board members is the foundation for the effective board chair’s ability to manage and lead those board members. The role of the chair is to create opportunities for all board members to live out their values as they contribute to fulfilling the organization’s mission. A chair of a voluntary board or committee should presume that the members want to be put to work. Members who join boards and committees but are never called upon to contribute are likely to lose interest. An effective chair stays focused on keeping members engaged.

Some of the ways a board chair can accomplish this are:

  • Assure that each board member has meaningful work assignments.
  • Spend meeting time discussing how the board will accomplish its goals.
  • Regularly recognize and thank board members for their participation.
  • Help board members develop and put into practice skills that will make them more effective participants.

Given this perspective, it would be a mistake for the board chair to shield board members from work assignments. Depriving board members of participation is tantamount to depriving them of the opportunity to realize their commitment to the organization’s mission. An effective board chair will find a task for each board member that will help the member usefully contribute to the organization’s work.

The regular work of the board may sometimes seem far afield from the organization’s primary mission. For example, board members might be asked to help organize an event, attend a meeting with representatives of other organizations with similar missions, serve pancakes at a fundraising breakfast, and so on. These activities do not directly put food in the mouths of the hungry. Nevertheless, they are necessary activities that make it possible for the organization to fulfill its mission. The chair’s responsibility is consistently to make connections for the members of the board between its activities and the organization’s mission. Board members need to see or be reminded of how what they are being asked to do relates to what the organization is committed to accomplishing. Making these connections explicit strengthens the organization by keeping its work focused and relevant.

To reinforce my earlier point, recognition is a key element of managing volunteer boards and committees. Board members must feel that they are making valued contributions to the organization. They should be thanked for their efforts, publicly and often. The board chair should use some meeting time to thank a board member for a noteworthy contribution. It is also especially effective to mention board members’ contributions by name on occasions when the board chair is invited to speak in public. Boards also benefit from more formal recognition programs. The annual presentation of certificates of appreciation in the presence of the organization’s employees can be quite effective. (As can the appreciation of employees in the presence of board members.) Such events are opportunities for the board chair to help educate employees about the contributions of board members and opportunities to reinforce the value of voluntary contributions to the mission.

Board education is another way to manage a board by creating opportunities for board members to be more effective in their roles. One way to do this is to devote time during board meetings to teaching about the issues the organization is addressing. For example, asking board members to read a current essay or article on food insecurity for discussion at a board meeting can strengthen and deepen members’ sense of the value of their participation. 

Another venue for education is the board retreat.  Retreats provide more time and fewer distractions for board members to articulate the value of their work. Sessions with subject matter experts or briefings on the newest issues the organization is facing are good ways to deepen board members’ knowledge.

In short, managing volunteers by engaging them in meaningful work will help board members gain satisfaction in their participation and should keep them committed to the organization. Deeper organization commitment by board members, in turn, makes it easier for the chair to lead. This, in turn, should result in a more effective board and a more vibrant organization.


Howard Cohen

Howard is chancellor emeritus at Purdue University Northwest. His career in higher education has spanned more than 50 years. His areas of practice include strategic and academic planning, department chair leadership, leadership team development and organization structural transformation. Howard has held academic appointments as a professor of philosophy and administrative appointments as department chair, program director, dean, provost and chancellor, serving at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, Purdue University Northwest and SUNY Buffalo State. He formerly was a senior associate and executive director of AASCU Consulting, a group that works primarily with public regional universities. Howard’s teaching and research interests have focused in the areas of social philosophy and ethics, as he addresses questions related to the obligations of those in positions of authority who make decisions for others. He is the author of two books — “Equal Rights for Children” and “Power and Restraint: The Moral Dimensions of Police Work” — and numerous journal articles. He holds a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from the University of Minnesota and masters and doctorate degrees in philosophy from Harvard University.