Leadership

Board Smarts: The Keys to Preventing Volunteer Burnout

By / Oct 1, 2015
One key lesson is that those board members simply wanted to feel informed.

How to support volunteers when their terms end.

Steve R. Smith, CAE, executive director of the American Academy of Hospice and Palliative Medicine (AAHPM), could tell from the first sentence of the email that a former board member was unhappy: “I want you to know why I’m not at this year’s conference.”

Many board members end their terms energized and upbeat about their service. But burnout and resentment are common as well. And traditional past-president gigs, like heading up nominating committees, may be unsatisfying. So when Smith read the lengthy list of grievances from the former board member, he decided he needed a strategy not just for offboarding but for establishing long-term relationships with ex-volunteer leaders.

His Association Management Center colleague Karen Nason, CAE, executive director of the Association of Rehabilitation Nurses, has run into similar sentiments from former leaders. “I’ve heard from some past presidents in particular, but also other board members, who feel they were in the middle of all this information, and they come off the board and there’s this vacuum of silence,” she says.

Step one: Smith got his most recent batch of rolled-off board members on a conference call to talk about transitions and to suggest roles they could play. “In the course of a one-hour call, we had four or five ideas that we have put into practice,” he says.

One key lesson is that those board members simply wanted to feel informed. So Smith copies them on an email he sends to the current board about recent actions. The fear that the recipients might mistake those emails for encouragement to play a decision-making role they no longer have hasn’t been borne out. “Knock wood, I’ve never gotten anything other than, ‘Thank you for sending this,’ ” Smith says.

Every other year, Smith also schedules a half-hour conference call with all interested past presidents to talk about AAHPM’s direction, which generates a feeling of inclusion—and unlocks some useful pieces of institutional memory.

Nason, for her part, is surveying former board members to define particular interests—writing for a newsletter, for instance, or reviewing conference proposals. She emphasizes that the conversation about what a former board member can contribute shouldn’t wait until the term is over. She recommends starting six months earlier or once board election results are known.

“We remind the volunteer leader that things are going to feel very different,” she says. “It’s setting a cultural expectation that we do hope that board members will continue to be engaged and some of them will have opportunities to contribute.”

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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