July 27, 2023

When Your Board Members Volunteer: How to Manage the Role Confusion

When your board members volunteer, it’s mostly good news, but it can also be bad news.

If you’re not careful, role confusion will result.

Watch this video to discover the challenge and how to keep your lines of authority clear.

You can prevent avoidable and unnecessary challenges so a good thing doesn’t turn into a bad thing at a nonprofit you love.


Transcript of When Your Board Members Volunteer: How to Handle the Confusion

I have good news and bad news for you.

The good news is that your board member is really committed, and they’re actively going to volunteer in your program. This is great. You need help. The board member shows their commitment. You’ve chosen a good person to join your board. And when they get to the board table, they’ll make really good and informed decisions about what’s happening because they know.

The bad news.

The bad news is that often, when board members do this, they’re switching roles, and they’re causing all kinds of chain-of-command questions and confusion.

And the worst news—Is that most board members don’t look at their volunteering work as any different than being on the board. It’s one continuous thing, so they don’t know they’re causing consternation in you.

Let’s talk about how to deal with the board member who’s also a volunteer.

To explore what happens when a board member also volunteers, let’s explore when they don’t. So, here’s a picture for us of a board on top having authority. And there’s our individual at it.

For members sitting there, the board collectively makes decisions.

The CEO interprets those decisions and is also part of “the everybody else” who executes and makes the mission happen.

What happens when the board member graciously also volunteers and tries to sit in both spaces and doesn’t help you or themselves understand whether they’re carrying the authority of a board member into that moment or not?

It gets confusing.

A board member says to your staff member, “You know, we’re just not resourcing our volunteers enough.” And the staff members thinking, “Hey are you suggesting an agenda item I should bring to the CEO to bring to the chair to put on the agenda about how we resource volunteers?

Or do you just need some more potting soil for the planting we’re trying to do out the side here?

So everyone has that fear that the authority is there. And the board member doesn’t even think about it that way. They just need some resources.

So what you want to do is help everyone, especially your board, to understand where their authority stops—which is outside the boardroom as a collective activity. And, so you have this opportunity to help the conversation and talk about these roles of what are we doing now.

In one meeting, you might, in your office, have the board members switch between talking about as a volunteer to talking about their board experience and how they think the board needs to deal with certain issues. Both of those things can happen, but it really helps everyone to say, “Okay, who are you talking as now? Which are you?

The language you give to your board about their roles is a gift that you give to them that helps them to remember who they are and what their job is. It’s also a gift that you give to your whole organization.

So I’m Karen Eber Davis, and if you are having some roles struggling and micromanagement other issues, there are a lot of resources on my website. I encourage you to check them out.


You can keep up with me –subscribe to my twice-monthly newsletter, Karen’s CEO Solutions.

Karen Eber Davis

Karen Eber Davis provides customized advising and coaching around nonprofit strategy and board development. People leaders hire her to bring clarity to sticky situations, break through barriers that seem insurmountable, and align people for better futures. She is the author of 7 Nonprofit Income Streams and Let's Raise Nonprofit Millions Together.


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