Avoiding the Disgruntled Ex-Board Member

Volunteers who’ve given years to an organization can often feel left adrift once their term ends. Clarity about responsibilities, especially at the start of the term, can help keep them engaged.

Managing volunteer leaders is a little like being a guide for a mountain climb. You begin with a group that arrives with plenty of enthusiasm—committee chairs, new board members—and you make a difficult trek upward. There are mistakes, people exchange short words at times, and raw personalities get exposed. But, thanks to your leadership, you get everybody to the top of the mountain.

At which point you realize you’re not sure how you’re going to get everybody back down.

It can be notoriously difficult to get members to get involved in volunteer service. For one thing, the climb can look like it will take much too long. But it can be equally challenging to find ways to help volunteer leaders end their term and stay engaged with the association.

I’ve never had anybody intervene or say, ‘Why are you doing this? We didn’t do that when I was president.’

That’s an experience Steve R. Smith, CAE, has had at executive director of the American Academy of Hospice and Palliative Medicine. As he explained in the latest issue of Associations Now, he’d received a tart message from a former board member who’d felt neglected after his term was over. Smith was struck by the irony of being head of an association focused on end-of-life care but not doing right by leaders at the end of their tenure. He recalls thinking, “Maybe we need to be a little more intentional with how we transition people at the end of their service.”

Smith’s solution is simple: Keep them in the loop. Every other year he invites AAHPM past presidents to take part in a phone call about the association’s activities, and he sends former board members the same email he delivers to current board members about its activities. This idea might strike fear in the heart of many association CEOs, dreading a reply-all-pocalypse of input from people with no real decisionmaking role. (And let’s not pretend that there aren’t some board members who CEOs are perfectly happy to see ride off into the sunset.) But Smith says the experience has only been positive. “I’ve never had anybody intervene or say, ‘Why are you doing this? We didn’t do that when I was president.’”

That, along with other traditional past-president roles such as heading up nominating committees, can help give a meaningful and positive image to the tail end of volunteer leadership. But it wouldn’t be a bad idea to bring that kind of candor to the beginning of the volunteer experience as well, as everybody begins to arrive at base camp. In a recent interview at Twenty Hats, Fairfax CASA volunteer supervisor MaryAnn Wohlford points out that clarifying what the volunteer experience will be like on the front end better equips leaders to provide support when those volunteers get frustrated or burn out.

After all, many volunteers check out, either literally or mentally, if they feel ill-equipped or unheard: “Some volunteers drop the ball because they think no one is looking — or they think what they are supposed to do is unimportant because no one is asking about it,” she says. And, she adds, when you’ve clarified what the expectations are, it’s easier to start a conversation when you see their engagement has begun to slip.

This process of candor and clarity needn’t be stressful, dutiful, or dull. Recently, Association Headquarters’ Jodi Araujo posted a video of a handful of basic tools to get new board members acclimated to their roles. The brief video (see below) is worth watching, but the lessons are straightforward: know their interests, know how they prefer to be managed, keep them focused on mission, help them forward their agenda.

As with the beginning of leadership terms, so with their ends. If you’ve done your vetting right, your board members aren’t there just because they want the status of a board seat. So, ending their tenures without taking advantage of their concern for the association’s mission squanders talent. “We recycle [former board members] onto some other board or they go away,” Smith says. “And there are so many other things that people might want to do.”

What have you done to keep volunteers engaged after their tenures have ended, and how do you prepare them for their leadership roles? Share your experiences in the comments.


Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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