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GOVERNANCE IN AN
ALL-VOLUNTEER
ORGANIZATION
When there are no staff to delegate to
By Trina Isakson
Most board governance resources stress the importance of separating
governance from operations: board members are responsible for
governance; staff are responsible for management and operations.
Governance: vision and mission, high-level strategy, legal and ethical
responsibilities, organizational and board health—today and for the future
Operations: implementing programs, marketing and communications,
human resources, accounting, etc.
But what about when there are no staff?
I propose that boards delegate operations largely to volunteers.
What do other experts think?
Nonprofit Quarterly raised this issue in the 2013 article What Staff?
Keeping Operations and Governance Separate in an Organization with No Staff.
Author Mitch Dorger describes the magnetic-like attraction that boards
often have for operational issues: “If they are allowed to, operational
activities will take over the board’s agenda and leave little or no time for
important governance matters.” Operations are fun because it’s “where the
action is.” However, when boards spend most of their time on operations,
organizations risk their long-term health.
Dorger describes a few possible ways that all-volunteer organizations can
separate governance from operations.
Ÿ Meeting agenda separation: Divide meetings up into time for
governance and operations either within meetings, or by holding separate meetings for
governance and operations.
Ÿ Committee structure: Develop board committees that each address governance (e.g. finance,
governance, strategy) or operations (divided by program/operational area) so that board
members are involved in both, but in separate ways.
Ÿ Separate boards: Have two boards of directors – one focused on governance, the other on
operations.
Ÿ Board role divisions: Update role descriptions so that different board members have different
responsibilities related to governance and/or operations
About the author
Trina Isakson is founder and principal
thinker at 27 Shift (27shift.com) and
leads research and strategy projects
that challenge assumptions of how
people contribute positively to
society. She also teaches a variety of
university courses on sustainable
development and nonprofit leadership
and management.
Trina is a sought out thought leader in
volunteer and employee engagement,
community-university engagement,
inter-generational dynamics, women
and leadership, introverts, and
innovations in nonprofit sector
governance and leadership.
trina@27shift.com
trinaisakson.com
@telleni
Page 2 of 5
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The board that does everything – governance and operations – is
often referred to as a working board. Working boards often focus
most exclusively on operations, which can result in burnout, legal
risk, and a lack of thought put into the future.
I argue that not only must boards of all-volunteer organizations
focus on governance, they may be able to delegate responsibility
for operations—not to staff or contractors—but to volunteers
external to the board of directors.
Governance and operations structural models
for all-volunteer organizations
In the following sections I share visual representations of how boards and other volunteers can organize
themselves to address both governance and operational requirements of an organization.
I go on to compare the three models with respect to features, benefits, drawback, meeting design, etc.
Beyond structure
While structure is important, the only way to truly ensure success is to also address the related
assumptions and beliefs held by board members. The board of directors must believe that:
1. Governance activities are crucial to the organization’s long term health and success.
2. An operational role (e.g. doing social media, organizing events) is a sufficient responsibility of a
board member.
3. There is an abundance of people who are willing to serve in volunteer leadership roles, they just
need to be provided the right opportunities, autonomy and trust, and clear expectations.
4. Experimentation, growth, and learning are healthy and important to organizational vitality.
Note
The committee and positions listed in the diagrams below are examples only. Each organization is unique
and will have different operational needs (and different ways to organize their governance
responsibilities).
THREE POSSIBLE STRUCTURAL MODELS THAT FOLLOW
Option 1: Full committee structure
Option 2: One operational committee
Option 3: Volunteer executive director
Q: Without staff, a board has
to do operations too, right?
A: Not necessarily.
Page 3 of 5
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Option 1: Full committee structure
In this example, the board consists of a series of governance and operational committees, each led by a
board member. The committees consist of a mix of board members and non-board volunteers. In this
manner, board members are responsible for governance and management, but the committees and their
members actually carry out operations.
Option 2: One operational
committee
In this example, there are two (or
more) committees focused on
governance, and only one committee is
focused on operational oversight.
Each of these committees can involve a
mix of board members and external
volunteers. Because of the breadth of
work the operational committee is
responsible for, it will likely involve
more external volunteers that board
members. Lead volunteers take on
specific areas of operations within the
operational committee.
Option 3: Volunteer executive
director
In this example, the structure is very similar
to one with paid staff, except the “staff” – the
executive director, directors, etc. are
volunteers. There are opportunities for
operational committees, but everything
“operational” reports to the board though the
volunteer executive director. The executive
director is a management position,
responsible for facilitating the work of
additional lead volunteers.
Board of
directors
Governance and
board
development
chair (or VP)
Governance and
board
development
committee
Finance and
strategy chair
Finance and
strategy
committee
Policy chair
Policy committee
Marketing-
communications
chair
Marcom
committee
Operations chair
Operations
committee
Events chair
Events
committee
Special projects
chair
Special projects
committee
Board of
directors
Executive
director
(volunteer)
Director of
operations
Director of
events
Director of
special projects
Director of
marketing-
communications
Board of
directors
Organizational
future
committee
Organizational
development
committee
Operational
oversight
committee
Director of
special projects
Special projects
volunteers
Director of
marketing-
communications
Marcom
volunteers
Director of
events
Volunteer event
organizers
Director of
operations
Technology and
administration
volunteers
Page 4 of 5
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Comparison
FULL COMMITTEE
STRUCTURE
ONE OPERATIONAL
COMMITTEE
VOLUNTEER EXECUTIVE
DIRECTOR
Features Board members take individual
responsibility for leading
specific governance and
operational areas.
Board members take
responsibility for mostly
governance. Only one committee
focused on operations.
All operations delegated to
volunteers via a volunteer
executive directors (like an
operations chair).
Ideal for A working board that wants to
ensure governance isn’t
forgotten, and is early stages of
growth.
An organization that wants to
focus more on growth, but wants
to stay close to operations for
now.
An organization with high levels of
trust, clarity, and an ability to
delegate authority. An organization
that is growing into the possibility
of having a paid coordinator.
Focus of board Governance, and managing
operations.
Governance. Limited focus on
operations.
Governance. Operations fully
delegated.
Benefits Board gets to stay close to
operations. High level of
control.
Opportunities for external
volunteer involvement in
leadership capacities.
Board can focus almost exclusively
on governance.
Wide range of opportunities for
external volunteer involvement in
leadership capacities.
Drawbacks Board members carry a lot of
responsibility.
Few formal leadership roles for
non-board members.
Board members may feel
removed from operations, and
therefore perhaps the work they
enjoy the most.
Board members may feel removed
from operations, and therefore
perhaps the work they enjoy the
most.
A lot rides on finding the right
volunteer to be executive director
(a leader who is good at facilitating
the work of others).
Types of board
members
required
People who can think with a
visionary and strategic lens and
who are willing/able to work
with others to get stuff done.
Mostly people who are able to
focus on governance, with a few
who also are interested in
operations.
People who are willing to let go of
the day-to-day operations and who
want to focus on governance,
vision, strategy and legal
responsibilities.
How to grow the
organization’s
work
Add new board members, or
increase the number of
responsibilities for individual
board members (watch for
burnout!).
Add members to the operational
oversight committee or increase
the responsibilities for individual
committee members (watch for
burnout!).
Add more directors to report to the
executive director (watch for
burnout!). Executive director may
eventually become paid role.
What board
meetings looks
like
• Operational updates for information (and discussion/decision only if necessary).
• Governance items for discussion/decision/action.
• Additional meetings or communication occurs at committee levels.
• How much autonomy and authority the board gives to committees and volunteers will impact the
types of discussions at board meetings.
Page 5 of 5
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Resources
Dorger, Mitch. (2013, September 27). What Staff? Keeping Operations and Governance Separate in an
Organization with No Staff. Nonprofit Quarterly. Available at:
https://www.nonprofitquarterly.org/governancevoice/22970-what-staff-keeping-operations-and-
governance-separate-in-an-organization-with-no-staff.html.
Kelly, C., and Gerty, L. (2013). The Abundant Not-for-Profit: How talent (not money) will transform your
organization. Available for purchase at: http://thevantagepoint.ca/content/abundant-not-profit
The Abundant Not-for-Profit originated from a professional development and capacity building
organization for nonprofit leaders called Vantage Point. They offer a variety of resources, workshops,
and webinars on topics such as governance and working with volunteers operating in highly-skilled
capacities. http://thevantagepoint.ca

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Governance in All-Volunteer Orgs

  • 1. Page 1 of 5 This work by 27 Shift Consulting is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/ GOVERNANCE IN AN ALL-VOLUNTEER ORGANIZATION When there are no staff to delegate to By Trina Isakson Most board governance resources stress the importance of separating governance from operations: board members are responsible for governance; staff are responsible for management and operations. Governance: vision and mission, high-level strategy, legal and ethical responsibilities, organizational and board health—today and for the future Operations: implementing programs, marketing and communications, human resources, accounting, etc. But what about when there are no staff? I propose that boards delegate operations largely to volunteers. What do other experts think? Nonprofit Quarterly raised this issue in the 2013 article What Staff? Keeping Operations and Governance Separate in an Organization with No Staff. Author Mitch Dorger describes the magnetic-like attraction that boards often have for operational issues: “If they are allowed to, operational activities will take over the board’s agenda and leave little or no time for important governance matters.” Operations are fun because it’s “where the action is.” However, when boards spend most of their time on operations, organizations risk their long-term health. Dorger describes a few possible ways that all-volunteer organizations can separate governance from operations. Ÿ Meeting agenda separation: Divide meetings up into time for governance and operations either within meetings, or by holding separate meetings for governance and operations. Ÿ Committee structure: Develop board committees that each address governance (e.g. finance, governance, strategy) or operations (divided by program/operational area) so that board members are involved in both, but in separate ways. Ÿ Separate boards: Have two boards of directors – one focused on governance, the other on operations. Ÿ Board role divisions: Update role descriptions so that different board members have different responsibilities related to governance and/or operations About the author Trina Isakson is founder and principal thinker at 27 Shift (27shift.com) and leads research and strategy projects that challenge assumptions of how people contribute positively to society. She also teaches a variety of university courses on sustainable development and nonprofit leadership and management. Trina is a sought out thought leader in volunteer and employee engagement, community-university engagement, inter-generational dynamics, women and leadership, introverts, and innovations in nonprofit sector governance and leadership. trina@27shift.com trinaisakson.com @telleni
  • 2. Page 2 of 5 This work by 27 Shift Consulting is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/ The board that does everything – governance and operations – is often referred to as a working board. Working boards often focus most exclusively on operations, which can result in burnout, legal risk, and a lack of thought put into the future. I argue that not only must boards of all-volunteer organizations focus on governance, they may be able to delegate responsibility for operations—not to staff or contractors—but to volunteers external to the board of directors. Governance and operations structural models for all-volunteer organizations In the following sections I share visual representations of how boards and other volunteers can organize themselves to address both governance and operational requirements of an organization. I go on to compare the three models with respect to features, benefits, drawback, meeting design, etc. Beyond structure While structure is important, the only way to truly ensure success is to also address the related assumptions and beliefs held by board members. The board of directors must believe that: 1. Governance activities are crucial to the organization’s long term health and success. 2. An operational role (e.g. doing social media, organizing events) is a sufficient responsibility of a board member. 3. There is an abundance of people who are willing to serve in volunteer leadership roles, they just need to be provided the right opportunities, autonomy and trust, and clear expectations. 4. Experimentation, growth, and learning are healthy and important to organizational vitality. Note The committee and positions listed in the diagrams below are examples only. Each organization is unique and will have different operational needs (and different ways to organize their governance responsibilities). THREE POSSIBLE STRUCTURAL MODELS THAT FOLLOW Option 1: Full committee structure Option 2: One operational committee Option 3: Volunteer executive director Q: Without staff, a board has to do operations too, right? A: Not necessarily.
  • 3. Page 3 of 5 This work by 27 Shift Consulting is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/ Option 1: Full committee structure In this example, the board consists of a series of governance and operational committees, each led by a board member. The committees consist of a mix of board members and non-board volunteers. In this manner, board members are responsible for governance and management, but the committees and their members actually carry out operations. Option 2: One operational committee In this example, there are two (or more) committees focused on governance, and only one committee is focused on operational oversight. Each of these committees can involve a mix of board members and external volunteers. Because of the breadth of work the operational committee is responsible for, it will likely involve more external volunteers that board members. Lead volunteers take on specific areas of operations within the operational committee. Option 3: Volunteer executive director In this example, the structure is very similar to one with paid staff, except the “staff” – the executive director, directors, etc. are volunteers. There are opportunities for operational committees, but everything “operational” reports to the board though the volunteer executive director. The executive director is a management position, responsible for facilitating the work of additional lead volunteers. Board of directors Governance and board development chair (or VP) Governance and board development committee Finance and strategy chair Finance and strategy committee Policy chair Policy committee Marketing- communications chair Marcom committee Operations chair Operations committee Events chair Events committee Special projects chair Special projects committee Board of directors Executive director (volunteer) Director of operations Director of events Director of special projects Director of marketing- communications Board of directors Organizational future committee Organizational development committee Operational oversight committee Director of special projects Special projects volunteers Director of marketing- communications Marcom volunteers Director of events Volunteer event organizers Director of operations Technology and administration volunteers
  • 4. Page 4 of 5 This work by 27 Shift Consulting is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/ Comparison FULL COMMITTEE STRUCTURE ONE OPERATIONAL COMMITTEE VOLUNTEER EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR Features Board members take individual responsibility for leading specific governance and operational areas. Board members take responsibility for mostly governance. Only one committee focused on operations. All operations delegated to volunteers via a volunteer executive directors (like an operations chair). Ideal for A working board that wants to ensure governance isn’t forgotten, and is early stages of growth. An organization that wants to focus more on growth, but wants to stay close to operations for now. An organization with high levels of trust, clarity, and an ability to delegate authority. An organization that is growing into the possibility of having a paid coordinator. Focus of board Governance, and managing operations. Governance. Limited focus on operations. Governance. Operations fully delegated. Benefits Board gets to stay close to operations. High level of control. Opportunities for external volunteer involvement in leadership capacities. Board can focus almost exclusively on governance. Wide range of opportunities for external volunteer involvement in leadership capacities. Drawbacks Board members carry a lot of responsibility. Few formal leadership roles for non-board members. Board members may feel removed from operations, and therefore perhaps the work they enjoy the most. Board members may feel removed from operations, and therefore perhaps the work they enjoy the most. A lot rides on finding the right volunteer to be executive director (a leader who is good at facilitating the work of others). Types of board members required People who can think with a visionary and strategic lens and who are willing/able to work with others to get stuff done. Mostly people who are able to focus on governance, with a few who also are interested in operations. People who are willing to let go of the day-to-day operations and who want to focus on governance, vision, strategy and legal responsibilities. How to grow the organization’s work Add new board members, or increase the number of responsibilities for individual board members (watch for burnout!). Add members to the operational oversight committee or increase the responsibilities for individual committee members (watch for burnout!). Add more directors to report to the executive director (watch for burnout!). Executive director may eventually become paid role. What board meetings looks like • Operational updates for information (and discussion/decision only if necessary). • Governance items for discussion/decision/action. • Additional meetings or communication occurs at committee levels. • How much autonomy and authority the board gives to committees and volunteers will impact the types of discussions at board meetings.
  • 5. Page 5 of 5 This work by 27 Shift Consulting is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/ Resources Dorger, Mitch. (2013, September 27). What Staff? Keeping Operations and Governance Separate in an Organization with No Staff. Nonprofit Quarterly. Available at: https://www.nonprofitquarterly.org/governancevoice/22970-what-staff-keeping-operations-and- governance-separate-in-an-organization-with-no-staff.html. Kelly, C., and Gerty, L. (2013). The Abundant Not-for-Profit: How talent (not money) will transform your organization. Available for purchase at: http://thevantagepoint.ca/content/abundant-not-profit The Abundant Not-for-Profit originated from a professional development and capacity building organization for nonprofit leaders called Vantage Point. They offer a variety of resources, workshops, and webinars on topics such as governance and working with volunteers operating in highly-skilled capacities. http://thevantagepoint.ca