Accountability And Volunteers: How to Get Rid of the Double Standard

Last month I witnessed a nonprofit Board meeting where a Board President apologized to a Board member.  “I’m sorry,” she said, “and I know you’re time is valuable, but we have a problem.”  The “problem” was the Board member’s failure to follow up with a donor who was irate about the lack of responsiveness.  “If the issue was so important maybe our paid staff should have taken care of the relationship,” the member responded.  Unfortunately, the paid staff available were not advised of the issue by the Board member and the ball was dropped.

We often have squishy expectations for volunteers, including Board members.  Why?  We may reason that since they are not being paid we have to cut them slack.  But we necessarily ask volunteers to sometimes take critical roles including the governance of an organization on which our larger community depends.  It’s true that many volunteers give generously of their time, but when they agree to accept a role why are they given second class expectations from which they can easily escape?

Based on my experience, first class nonprofits have first class volunteers with first class expectations for the following reasons:

  • Acting as though volunteers have less accountability for their behavior than employees never works.  The expectations inevitably differ, but accountability creates an environment of respect for the role of volunteers.
  • Great nonprofits recognize the accountability of volunteers and ask those who are not accountable to leave, including Board members.  Irrespective of your culture a double standard is always destructive.
  • Time is not less valuable than money and in many circumstances it has considerably more value.  When this is acknowledged it addresses the double standard issue with the assumption that everyone’s time has equal value.  You may have more financial wealth than me, but your time is no more valuable than mine.

While many fear the tension of dealing with volunteers who refuse to be accountable, the more directly the issue is addressed, the more hope there is for the future of the organization.  You may lose a couple of Board members or other volunteers, but you will also gain some self-respect and the good will of others.  That has a lot of appeal in our world.