How to Stop “Volunteer Drift”

Volunteer leaders sometime stick around longer than bylaws dictate. That’s a problem not just for the people in charge but those hoping to be.

Some people just don’t know when to let go.

On a recent thread on one of ASAE’s Collaborate groups, an executive mentioned a problem with a volunteer committee that had allowed its members to stay in place long past its designated term limits. Now, unsurprisingly, the volunteers have a hard time letting go of the reins and are sure that they are the only people qualified to manage the committee. After all, they’ve been there so long!

The overwhelming majority of associations have some kind of policy in place regarding volunteer terms: According to ASAE’s 2013 book, What Makes High-Performing Boards?, 89 percent of associations do so. Sometimes, though, the policy is a relaxed one: 27 percent have no term limits or just require that members roll off for a year or two. And though there’s general agreement that some lines around terms of service are desirable, there’s little consensus about what those lines ought to be.

Power and Permission

Part of the problem, says Michael Wyland, a former association and nonprofit executive and partner at the consultancy Sumption & Wyland, is that the organization is often struggling to fill those board and volunteer seats in the first place, which makes nudging people out of their chairs a less appealing task. That doesn’t mean the people who remain in place are greedily seizing control. But it does mean they’re standing in the way of new ideas that others can bring to the organization—even inhibiting a conversation about what those new ideas might be.

No one has given them permission to leave they feel like they have to keep coming.

“It’s usually benign,” he says. “It’s rarely an issue of someone seeking power. The board or the committee becomes, insular, working amongst itself…. And the longer they do that together the more insular they tend to be, and the assumption comes up that ‘Nobody knows what we’re doing as well as we do.’ Well, the reason for that is nobody else has been meaningfully communicated with or included in the work. So this group almost adopts its own language after a time, and anyone who doesn’t share that language is perceived as being somehow not as well-informed, not as favorable, not as easy to be brought along into the complexities of whatever the committee or the board is facing.”

That sentiment echoes another data point from the 2013 study: 25 percent of organizations with no term limits say they have less turnover than is optimal. Presumably, even more executives feel that way in organizations that have term limits that are being openly flouted. Some argue that the problem with term limits is that they force out the talented and capable leaders that ought to be encouraged to stick around. “Term limits throw the baby out with the bathwater,” as governance scholar William F. Meehan III said here a while back.

But often, Wyland says, the problem is less a matter of leaders deliberately overstaying their welcome than of being unsure of what’s being demanded of them; they’d leave, if only they were given the signal that they can. Association volunteers often aren’t given much guidance about what’s expected of them, especially early in their tenures, so the potential for drift is strong. “They feel like they’ve given everything they have to give, but because no one has given them permission to leave they feel like they have to keep coming,” he says.  “We want to make sure that the board and committees have the opportunity for a balance between institutional knowledge and new ideas. Neither one is good by itself.”

Short- and Long-Term Fixes

And that’s the message, in the short term, that leaders—preferably the board chair, Wyland says, but with an assist from the chief staff officer—can deliver to volunteers who may be overstaying their welcome. Strong, talented volunteers can have other leadership roles in the organization, and it may help to remind over-tenured volunteers of the trickle-down effects of lingering: a sense among aspiring leaders that leadership is an exclusive walled garden, which over time means fewer talented aspirants will want in. “Others in membership who would be desirous of influencing change and entering leadership being a part of leadership are disenfranchised and disaffected,” says Wyland.

In the long run, though, the association benefits from strengthening its governance committee—or establishing one, if it lacks it for some reason—to better communicate the boundaries on leadership. “There needs to be a discreet, blame-free conversation with the board chair, or with the executive director, or with the governance committee chair—whoever it is who might be in leadership—saying, ‘I’ve been noticing this. Is this something you’ve noticed as well?” says Wyland. It may take a certain amount of nerve to raise the question. But doing so can have a serious impact on whether you’ll have more talent to help you down the line.

What turnover issues do you face among your volunteer leaders, and how do you address them? Share your experiences in the comments.

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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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