Board volunteers need staff support


It's one thing to be Balkanized and another to be Baklorized. Frankly, I'm not sure which is worse.

Why I still bother to go to lunch with Sandy Baklor is beyond me. He eats and talks, and I scribble. He gains two pounds, and I lose two. Sandy's latest concern centered on the issue of board volunteers. As former chair of the board of Baltimore's Museum of Industry and as a fund-raising trainer for a national nonprofit, Sandy was curious about the level of support that nonprofit organizations give their board members.

While more and more organizations today specify what they expect from their board volunteers, they aren't equally clear about what those volunteers can expect from the organization.

A good example of this is fund raising. How many times does a volunteer go out into the cruel world to raise funds without being properly armed? At the very least, a volunteer should expect fact sheets that concisely describe the organization and its accomplishments, bulleted presentations that ease the fund-raising burden and profiles of the people with whom they are expected to meet.

According to Baklor, the chief executive should feed the volunteer information which may be needed to raise funds or other resources, such as agreements to serve on committees. The point to be made here is that organizations need to be mindful that a volunteer's real-life job must come first. That means the organization must do whatever it can to support that volunteer.

Another way to support volunteers is to provide them with the training and skills they need to get their jobs done right.

Training doesn't always have to focus on advanced topics, even if the board is a prestigious one. Training in the basics of effective committee work, for example, always brings the trainer's perspectives, ideas and skills to the table, frequently offering even experienced board members a new slant. If done correctly, everyone seems to benefit. Experienced hands often offer their experiences to the discussions that such training opportunities afford.

Baklor gives an example of a voluntary training workshop he did for a board many years ago, which covered some very basic topics.

Among the attendees was Frank Gunther, the highly regarded Baltimore fund-raiser and community leader known for his many volunteer efforts. When Baklor asked him why he was there, Gunther replied that he goes to every training session he can. "It refreshes me and acquaints me with the organization's case," Baklor reports Gunther told him. From that, Baklor learned how valuable support of volunteers can be approached with the right attitude.

Of course, there is a difference between support of volunteers and assuming their duties. In fund-raising, especially, there is a fine line between the two. It is important for board leaders to make sure that volunteers are supported, but that staff do not end up doing the actual fund-raising itself.

One of the prime responsibilities of a volunteer is to act as an agency advocate and to help it increase awareness of the agency and its role in the community. To that end, it is nice to have board members make presentations about the organization to public groups, fraternal organizations, and even to legislators.

A side effect of these presentations is that it helps the board member get comfortable with the organization's case. That paves the way for even the most reluctant fund-raiser to eventually take part in a fund-raising call.

Critical to these presentations is the support that staff give. Well-designed and effective programs provide board volunteers with overheads tailored to the specific talk, an overhead projector (with an extra bulb, please), or a video setup.

Good marketing plans consider board volunteer as a key marketing segment. Part of the marketing plan for the board should include staff support for all aspects of the volunteer's work.

Les Picker is a philanthropy consultant. Write to him at The Brokerage, 34 Market Place, Suite 331, Baltimore, Md. 21202; (410) 783-5100

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