Another kind of board leadership
(photo by me, via Flickr)
Last month, when I discussed "missed opportunities for alumni organizations," I mentioned that some volunteer resources go to waste.
This provoked an email from a U.S.-based reader who asked:
What is the ideal role of a University's alumni board? Is it the governance of volunteer organizations (such as clubs and special interest groups)? If so, what does that mean on a tactical level? What are some tangible examples of appropriate work for alumni boards? Who drives the agenda-setting and structure for committees?
The reader said that her question was aimed at finding "a model structure or set of roles...most likely to result in board members feeling that their time is being well-spent and is delivering value to the University."
This is a lot to cover, but a few thoughts come to mind.
["What is the ideal role of a University's alumni board?"]
For starters, the ideal role of a board depends on the business goals of the organization. They might want a small advisory board that provides guidance and input on ideas. Or they might need a larger, working board that has committees who do hands on work, or who have fiduciary responsibility. Either way, they do something the institution needs to get done.
When it comes to "board members feeling that their time is...delivering value to the University," it's important to recognize that many volunteers don't have the institution's needs first in mind when they sign on for board service. They are looking for something they will find fun, interesting, or personally rewarding. Stating "support for the institution's needs" as an explicit job responsibility is a good idea when forming or informing your board.
One risk of volunteers handling tactical work is that it may tempt one or two board members to micromanage day to day details that are better left up to the staff. Staff leaders can craft the agendas and structure for committees in collaboration with board leaders, again keeping in mind what the organization needs. And as mentioned above, some leaders may not be conscious that serving the institution is the board's primary responsibility.
[A brave executive, in partnership with progressive volunteer leadership,
can do away with standing committees...]
A brave executive, in partnership with progressive volunteer leadership, can do away with some or all of a board's standing committees, in favor of more fluid, changeable "task forces" or "working groups." More flexible sub-groups can tackle a current topic of immediate importance, so you might have a group launch a project or address a problem over one or two meetings, and then disperse and re-form around a different, emerging topic. This also allows alumni to volunteer for projects that are of more interest to them, so they are motivated and feel well-deployed.
It's difficult to get the best out of volunteers if you ask them to work on something endless and vague like "Communications" or "Finance." Focus your requests when you can, and structure volunteer leadership around finite, measurable projects if possible. The volunteers will feel more productive and the institution will benefit tangibly.
Some additional thoughts about volunteer management:
- Volunteer engagement is vulnerable: reliance on a very small number of individuals to fill the vast majority of leadership roles creates a meager pipeline of future leaders.
- If possible, engage alumni in ways that use their expertise or specialized knowledge.
- Create clear roles and responsibilities for volunteers, but be sensitive to volunteers' desire to create their own experience along flexible lines. You may have to compromise to get them involved.
- People often seek short-term opportunities; check your list of volunteer roles and see whether you can add more short-term offerings.
- Don't forget past volunteers. Past leaders often disappear from the radar when they still have ideas, energy and time to contribute.
- If alumni are helping manage your online presence (e.g., moderating LinkedIn Groups, tweeting in a semi-official capacity, or responding to Facebook content on behalf of the institution), include them in your volunteer recognition just as you include traditional volunteers (such as reunion chairs, club or chapter presidents, and alumni board members).