Heather Comstock Connects

Helping nonprofits and other volunteer organizations develop strong relationships and a clear voice in the community.

By-Laws: The Pitchfork of the Nonprofit World

Picture the classic movie mob of villagers rampaging on the local mad scientist’s castle. There’s always one guy wielding a pitchfork, right? It is a valuable tool for farmers but can also double as a weapon. One could argue the same thing about nonprofit by-laws. Unfortunately, by-laws get a bad rap because too often they are used as a weapon rather than as a useful tool.

So aside from being used to cure insomnia or as an offensive weapon in board wars, what the heck is the point of having by-laws and how do you make them work for you?

They are the ground rules for the running of the organization. This is the primary function of by-laws. They provide the framework and the rules of the road so everyone knows how stuff is supposed to happen. How do people get on the board? How do they go off? How much longer do we need to tolerate the cantankerous and negative individual who only creates havoc? Your by-laws can answer that question.

They set expectations and duties for your board members. The board is responsible for the health and well-being of the board. Roles and responsibilities are described in the by-laws so individuals know what they are supposed to do. Your by-laws should also contain provisions for term limits, replacing officers in the event they can no longer carry out their duties (such as an unexpected and extensive illness or that person that stops attending meetings), and establishes a conflict of interest policy.

Allows for efficient operations of the organization. Your by-laws will probably contain provisions for the creation of committees and the ability to hire an executive director. Contrary to popular belief, committees are not where good ideas go to die. The point of committees is to the grunt work outside of the board meeting so valuable time won’t be spent researching an issue or wordsmithing. As your organization grows, you may need to hire someone to manage the day to day activities and your by-laws can allow for that.

Establishes your meeting procedures. By-laws will usually stipulate who can call meetings and how notifications are handled, elections, minimum meetings for the year, how many people constitute a quorum for business to be conducted, and the rules of order for the meeting (Dear Old Robert!).

While you want the by-laws to be clear and upfront, be sure that you don’t include things that are better suited to a procedure manual. You can amend your by-laws but you don’t want them to be so detailed that every time there’s a shift in technology or business methods you have to amend them.

The bottom line? Your by-laws are a tool to help your organization thrive and grow. They create a level playing field for your leadership and set common expectations for everyone.


You Can’t Pick Your Family…For Your Nonprofit Board?

Family on your board? Good idea? Can you do it? Maybe. (art copyright by J. Comstock, 2013)

Family on your board? Good idea or bad idea? Can you do it? Perhaps. (art copyright by J. Comstock, 2013)

“We are family!” says the Sly and the Family Stone song. People trust family and rely on those relationships. Family can be a springboard when you’re doing something big and need support, but do you want to include family on your board? Can you include family members on your board? Like most nonprofit questions, the answer to this is “yes and no”.

Right at the very beginning, when you’re completing your 1023 application for tax exemption, Part V starts asking questions about who comprises your board. Question 2a doesn’t beat around the bush: “Are any of your officers, directors, or trustees related to each other through family or business relationships? If “Yes”, identify the individuals and explain the relationship. Emphasis is the IRS’s so I’m guessing they take this pretty seriously. Questions b and c ask further drill down the relationship issue.

So why all the fuss? Well, it gets down to two things:

  1. Conflict of Interest in the business dealings of the organization.
  2. The ability of a group of individuals to band together and dominate the board’s decision-making process.

One of the tasks the IRS is undertaking when they review an application is to gauge how legitimately the organization intends to provide a charitable or educational benefit to the larger community. They are looking to ensure that people creating nonprofits aren’t trying to dodge paying business taxes, launder money, or create an opportunity to personally enrich themselves.

As one person pointed out recently, if the goal is to find people to serve on the board who will participate and deliver, wouldn’t you turn to family members for that trusted relationship? Good point. That said, if you do want to include family members, here are some things to keep in mind.

Can you justify including family on the board? An example would be starting an organization to honor a family member by working on an issue near and dear to their hearts. Perhaps Grandma never let a cat go homeless so after her passing, you create Grandma Hilda’s Home for Homeless Felines. In that case, you may want to have representation from the family to honor the legacy of Grandma Hilda and keep the organization on track to honor her.

Be careful about how many family members you have on your board. Family is like salt, you can have too much. A concern is the potential for the related persons to outvote everyone else and possibly utilize the organization’s resources to personally gain from their involvement.

For example, if your by-laws call for a board of five people, that makes your quorum three. Assuming you’re on the board and you bring on two family members, the three of you constitutes a quorum that could potentially conduct business without the other two board members. The three of you can outvote everyone else. So what happens when you guys vote to hire Cousin Lou as Executive Director, who has no nonprofit experience and pay him an annual salary of $250,000 or you award that huge IT contract to your sister Sally?

Even if everything is above board, your board is public information and too many family members on the board can make people skittish about your organization. When you apply for grants or file annual updates with the state and federal government, they ask for a list of your board members, usually with addresses. Keep in mind that even the appearance of some impropriety can have far reaching effects.

Being on a nonprofit board with family won’t magically erase all the past tension and in fact may increase it. Board service can do strange things to people and relationships so be protective about your family relationships. Nonprofits do not “belong” to anyone and you can’t guarantee your own or family involvement with an organization. Be protective of your family relationships and if you think board service might destroy a relationship, it isn’t worth it. There are plenty of individuals who can make wonderful contributions that you don’t have to see at Thanksgiving!

Family can enhance a board, but including family on boards should be done very carefully with a great deal of thought and planning to avoid conflicts of interest.

How about you? Have you ever served on a board with family members? What about being one of the unrelated members of a family board? Got anything else to add?

Is Your Organization Ready for Scrutiny?

Are your organizational records ready for scrutiny? Lesser Ury: Leser mit Lupe, c. 1895 Oil on canvas source: Wikimedia Commons.

Did you know that IRS code 501(c) has designations from 1 through 27 and then some?* I learned that a few years ago working on my certificate in Nonprofit Financial Management at UMUC. That is a mind-boggling number and it doesn’t even include the political parties and groups.

The Chronicle of Philanthropy wrote a great article on the current controversy that covered the mechanics of what was happening. While the issue has been focused completely on 501(c)(4) organizations, many in the general public hear “nonprofit” and the sector as a whole can get painted in one broad stroke. Ultimately, when organizations are getting a break from taxes, the general sentiment is that they should be doing something beneficial to justify that break. I think these questions are a good thing (here’s an article I found very interesting) but are you ready for the scrutiny?

Be clear and focused from the start. If you’re just applying for exemption, you already know that the IRS was scrutinizing applications for organizations being created to hide income, enrich individuals, or take advantage of other loopholes. When completing your narrative, make certain that your charitable purpose and activities are very clear. Have someone who is unfamiliar with your group read the narrative and review your final application before submission. If they can’t understand what you’re doing, the IRS won’t either.

Keep up with your annual filings. If you are already a tax exempt group, make sure you file your 990 or 990EZ annually with the IRS but also any reports due to the state. In Maryland, nonprofits need to complete their annual Personal Property Tax Return by April 15th and if you’re registered with the Secretary of State’s Charitable Organization Division, you will need to file your COF-85 as well. Even if your group is small and not generating a lot of income, the annual filings allow these government groups to receive updated lists of board members and know that you are still active.

Make sure your records are ready for disclosure. Most organizations are required by local law to provide copies of financial statements to anyone of the public who requests them. Additionally, newer organizations also have to provide copies of their initial federal 1023 Application to anyone who requests them. Take advantage of sites like Guidestar.org to create a profile for your organization. Guidestar already collects publicly available information such as 990s but organizations can expand that profile by including annual reports and audited financial statements.

Set aside some time each year for maintenance. Secretaries and Treasurers are the roles responsible for these records – even if there are staff. Take some time each year to compile your annual records together so nothing gets lost. Here’s a brief list of things to keep handy:

  • Copies of Annual returns and filings – federal and state
  • Board meeting minutes
  • Board contact lists
  • Contracts
  • Financial records including copies of bank statements, deposits, accounts receivable and payable
  • Financial statements and reports
  • Insurance information
  • Budgets

You would be surprised at how quickly small things like this can go missing. Being proactive on compiling these records can save time later. Smaller groups can take advantage of this time to perform an informal internal audit or review of the books.

Invest time in educating yourself about requirements. If you’re a small organization or perhaps all volunteer, how do you keep track of all this? A good place to start is with the IRS website, StayExempt.org which has some mini-courses and information on things organizations should be doing to stay compliant with the IRS requirements. Locally, check out your Secretary of State’s office or your local nonprofit advocacy group. In Maryland, you can look to Maryland Nonprofits for helpful checklists. The Standards for Excellence are a great way to monitor what you should be doing – even if you’re not ready to see the Seal, you can always use the Code as your guide.

Public discourse on the role of nonprofits in the community keeps all of us on our toes. It shines the light on groups who are not organized for appropriate purposes and makes those who are out there working hard every day that much stronger.

*From the textbook by Herrington J. Bryce, Financial & Strategic Mangaement for Nonprofit Organization (3rd ed.). It has a good overview on the legal organization of nonprofits but focuses specifically on 501(c)(3) groups. Published in 2000 by Jossey-Bass Publishing.

Photo: Via Wikimedia Commons: Lesser Ury: Leser mit Lupe, c. 1895 Oil on canvas 53.2 x 40.8 cm {{Creator:Lesser Ury}} {{PD-art}} Source: http://www.villa-grisebach.de/. In the United States this work is available in the Public Domain.

Start-Up Growing Pains Are Nothing New: The Acts of the Apostles

If only fundraising were this easy! Illustration from the life of St. Peter: Saint Peter paying a fee by extracting coins from the mouth of a fish. File via Wikimedia Commons.

During the Christian liturgical year from Easter through Pentecost, many churches study the Acts of the Apostles which describes the formation of the early Christian Church. As I listen to these readings, I realize the Apostles wrestle with familiar start-up issues: organizational and operational structures and how to grow without sacrificing mission.

Moving on without the Founder. Many start up organizations get going because of the efforts and energy of a charismatic founder who is driven to address a particular issue. Unfortunately, some organizations fail when the founder leaves because the group was reliant on this one key person to continue moving forward on their mission. In Acts, the Disciples who are know known as the Apostles, initially struggle with continuing to carry on Jesus’ mission. Ultimately, because of their own personal commitment, they overcome the loss of their leader and stay focused on their mission. Each one of the original Apostles had their own strengths, talents, and commitment to the mission that would blossom in the coming years. Having the right mix of talent in place ensured the continuation of the group.

Selecting New Leadership. Peter emerges almost immediately as the strongest personality and acknowledged leader of the Christians. Peter was handpicked by the Founder for this role and was carefully cultivated to take over leadership whether he realized it or not. Frankly, he didn’t seem like the best candidate for the job. He had already pulled a sword and cut off the ear of a servant, denied being a follower of Christ, and had run away when things got a little hairy. You can’t deny Peter’s passion though. Passion and charisma were needed to keep this band of Christians together and focused through tough transitional times.

Filling vacant board positions. In the days immediately following Jesus’ Ascension (Acts 1:1-10), the Apostles have to address the vacancy on their “board” created by Judas’ betrayal. Together they elect Matthias from among their followers to fill that gap. As they look for viable candidates, they look to the group of followers who have been with them “the whole time” (Acts 1:21). This is an excellent strategy for board recruitment – tapping individuals who have been involved with the organization, are committed to the mission, and have demonstrated that commitment in other positions.

Delegation of Authority. Eventually, the Apostles realize the mission has gotten so big, they can’t conduct all of the activities alone so they decide to delegate certain administrative functions to others. They realize these activities are crucial so they create a committee to discharge some of these functions (Acts 6:1-7). This ensured that key activities related to the mission such as the food distribution were carried out. It would be easy for activities such as feeding the poor to fall through cracks. Delegation ensures these mission critical activities are accomplished.

Developing policies for future growth. As the geographic territory of the group expanded, the message of the early Christians was shared with Gentiles who did not have the Jewish grounding of the early followers. Eventually a controversy about circumcision emerges as the first major issue that threatens to split the group apart. To address the concern, representatives are chosen to head back to Jerusalem to sort the issue out (Acts 15:1-35). The council makes a decision and then writes letters for dissemination amongst the believers clearly outlining the policy of the Church that took into account the needs of the people being served and ensured there would be no misinterpretation of the decision.

There are other issues addressed in Acts such as growth and expansion and protecting their identity from imposters. The concerns don’t end here either. As you read Paul’s letters to various the churches around the region, you discover that people are people and all groups have internal politics – even 2,000 years ago. One thing is certain, for millenia, individuals who care about their communities have come together to affect positive change. Controversy and challenges are nothing new and they don’t stop just with start-up. Just remember: you’re not alone and nothing is new. These challenges are an opportunity for your organization to grow and become stronger!

Image from Wikimedia Commons: Augustin TüngerFacetiae Latinae et Germanicae, Konstanz 1486, Württembergische Landesbibliothek Stuttgart, Cod. HB V 24a. – Illustration from the life of St. Peter: Saint Peter paying a fee by extracting coins from the mouth of a fish. Available at: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tuenger_Facetie.jpg#file

Keeping Up With the Grants

When do you start working on your final grant report? The day you get your award letter!    (Image: Centpacrr at en.wikipedia [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons)

While not as reality-tv worthy as Kardashians, grants and other foundation funding are vitally important for many nonprofits. If your organization is thinking about or has already applied for (and hopefully received) grant funding, one of the obligations will be completing a report about how the money was used and the impact of the project. When you provide your funder with successful reports in a timely manner, you increase your odds for further funding.

Here are six tips for easier grant reporting:

1. Create a file (both digital & hardcopy) where you can immediately put papers & information related to the grant. Include a full copy of the final application (you’ll want to reference the original goals) and a copy of your signed award letter. Create a folder on your computer for digital copies of information you need to report to the funder. This makes it easier to access from anywhere, collaborate, and gives you the ability to cut & paste information rather than re-typing it. A physical folder is a good place to corral odds and ends such as check stubs. Having a convenient “dumping ground” will mean you can save information in a matter of a seconds rather than spending ages digging for it a year or so later when you’re trying to pull your final report together.

2. Add dates to your calendar now. The award letter might include time sensitive information. Take some time to add these dates to your calendar so they don’t sneak up on you. Do yourself a favor and set internal deadlines earlier so you have a buffer. Be on the lookout for quarterly or annual reporting dates in addition to the final report. Be sure to let other key folks know about these dates.

3. Plan your report contents and build your data collection tools and documentation plans from the outset. The award letter may contain information about the final report but if it doesn’t contact the funder and see if there are any report guidelines or a copy of the report form. Depending on the length of the project, requirements may change, but you’ll still be ahead of the game if you know exactly what information the funder expects and collect it from the start.

4. When in doubt, collect it. Better to have too much data or information than to not have it later.

5. Collect as you go. As you progress throughout your year and run across information that will be of interest to the funder, put a copy in the grant folder. You’ll be using this information in a variety of places anyway from your annual reports to public relations information and its easy for something to get overlooked later if its not right in front of you when you’re writing your report.

6. Take pictures and make it personal. Snap pictures of events, programs, clients, and the activities of your organization. Label and date them so you know what they are. Save copies in your grant folder so you have them at your fingertips at report time. Same thing with client testimonials. Take a few minutes to write down comments, success stories, or scan notes & letters and save them for the future. Never underestimate the power of qualitative and especially visual data!

Consistently delivering reports and information to your funders in a timely manner will go a long way to building a solid reputation. The same information can also be used in other ways to communicate the story of your oganization’s impact on the community.

Got any tips for preparing reports that you’ve found helpful? Share them in the comments below!

Image via Wikimedia Commons: Centpacrr at en.wikipedia [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons.

Spring To Do Items

Springtime is traditionally very busy for most nonprofits. Review this checklist for the most common activities! (photo (c) 2013 Heather Comstock)

Springtime is traditionally very busy for most nonprofits. Review this checklist for the most common activities! (photo (c) 2013 Heather Comstock)

Spring has finally arrived here in the Mid-Atlantic bringing flowers and pollen! This time of year always kicks off a flurry of activities for many nonprofits so here’s a quick checklist of things to keep in mind before you skive off to play hooky!

Annual Meeting – every incorporated nonprofit is required to have at least one board meeting annually. This is often referred to as the Annual Meeting. For groups that meet regularly, this may seem a bit superfluous, but you still need to stay compliant. Usually it means adding the words “Annual Meeting” to your agenda and minutes for the meeting. Take a few minutes to review your organizing documents (articles of incorporation and by-laws) for your group’s requirements and other activities that may hinge on your Annual Meeting such as Board Elections.

Annual Business Meeting – if you are a membership-based organization, your by-laws often require you to have some sort of annual business meeting that is open to all members to attend. Usually the Treasurer is required to make a financial report and often votes by your members are conducted at these meetings. Many groups hold these in conjunction with an annual conference or convention. Check your organizing documents for requirements on announcing and publishing meeting dates and other items for voter consideration like by-law changes.

Check your budget! If your organization uses a fiscal year, start preparing the budget for next year. The State of Maryland uses a fiscal year of July 1 through June 30th and many Maryland-based nonprofits do the same. Your board will need to review and approve the coming year’s budget before the start of the fiscal year.

Elections – many organizations conduct elections of new board members and representatives during the spring with the results or swearing in of new officers conducted with the Annual Meeting. Take a few minutes to plan the logistics of these ceremonies. Is there a written Oath of Office? Who conducts the ceremony? Plan for pictures and publishing the information either internally or with a press release to the local media.

Orientation – plan your orientation activities for your new board members, new volunteers, or even new members. What information will they need to understand the organization? How can you make them feel welcome and more comfortable in their role? Do you assign mentors? Take some time to ask your current board members or volunteers what they wished they had known when they first got started. Start compiling your orientation materials now. Maryland Nonprofits has a great checklist available for members.

Recognition – take some time to recognize outgoing or exceptional volunteers. As you cycle out board members, take some time to publicly recognize the contributions of those who are leaving. If you have a volunteer who has done outstanding work, now is a good opportunity to showcase their contributions to a larger audience. Get those trophies, plaques, and certificates done now and have someone else proof read them! Then you have extra time if there’s anything misspelled or incorrect.

If you are finding yourself already in the midst of some of these items, take a few minutes to make some notes about the process for the next year:

  • Does your organization keep an annual calendar? Was it accurate?
  • Did you start too early or too late?
  • What worked well?
  • What didn’t work at all?
  • Were you able to locate all the required information (such as Oath of Office) easily?
  • Does the process outlined in by-laws or policy manuals align with the reality of accomplishing these tasks?
  • Is there something or someone else who was needed during the process?

What else does your organization do during the spring? Do you have any other tips to help keep this time of year going smoothly?

A Few Minutes on Minutes

Do your meeting minutes capture the business of the board or bored minutes you will never get back?

Do your meeting minutes capture the business of the board or bored minutes you will never get back? (Photo (c) 2013 Heather Comstock)

Minutes. We love to hate them don’t we? The quality of minutes is all over the place. I’ve seen some groups that literally include a verbatim transcript of the meeting (snore) to minutes where major decisions of the board are glossed over (uh, what just happened?) offhandedly.  Nobody wants to be the secretary and take the minutes because its a pain in the rear end. It is a thankless job as everybody complains when they don’t get them and when they do, suddenly everyone is an amateur copy editor finding all the mistakes.

So, why bother with minutes?

  •  To Cover Your Fanny (or CYA). Minutes detail the decisions and delegations of the authority by the board of directors who are ultimately responsible for the health of the organization (aka their Fiduciary Responsibility). This is particularly important when it comes to issues of Conflict of Interest.
  • To answer the question, “What in the heck was the Board thinking?” While good minutes are not a transcript, sometimes it is helpful to provide some background information or you can watch an issue develop over several meetings.
  • To answer the question, “When did the board approve this?” You can wade through the minutes and document changes to your by-laws, policies, and contracts over time.
  • To show your financial auditors that you didn’t expend the organization’s funds on a whim. The auditors may ask for the minutes to compare against the finances to ensure that funds were spent as authorized by the board. (Fiduciary Responsibility again).
  • To help new board members get oriented. As part of your orientation packet, be sure to include the previous year’s minutes as a cure for insomnia, I mean background reading so the new members know what issues the organization has been tackling.

What’s a good approach to keeping minutes?

  • Take advantage of technology! Some secretaries take minutes on a laptop during the meeting. Others hand write notes and then retype. Sometimes people tape record the meeting and use that to capture anything that is missed.
  • Ask those who are making motions to write them down and give or email a copy to the secretary. This works particularly well when a motion is coming out of a committee or if the motion is detailed and complex. Your secretary will thank you.
  • Consolidate attachments into the body of the document. Sometimes attachments get lost or aren’t provided and then the minutes will say something to the effect of “see attachment” which isn’t there. This is true of policies or by law changes.
  • Disseminate the minutes as soon as possible after the meeting and to a wide audience. First and foremost, it will keep the to do items (an itemized list at the end also helps) fresh on the minds of the board members. Second, it resolves the Hit By A Bus Principle. If the Secretary disappeared tomorrow, would you be able to reconstruct the minutes?
  • If you delegate decision-making authority to a committee, that group should also keep minutes and maintain a record the same way and for the same reasons as the Board!

A great quick resource about minutes can be found in the Maryland Nonprofits Frequently Asked Questions section (see #8) and over at Board Source.

In the meantime, thank your Secretary! He or she is doing an important task for the organization!

Do you have any pet peeves about minutes? Do you like to take the minutes? Got any suggestions for making minutes easier and more useful?

Three Lessons about Nonprofit Operations from M.A.S.H.

Like a M.A.S.H. Unit, is your organization able to be mobile, identify & triage concerns, and support your people for success? (By CBS Television (eBay item photo front photo back) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

We dumped our cable a few years ago because I was tired of paying a ton of money for my son to watch one or two channels and frankly, we haven’t missed it. We were delighted when a few months ago, when a new channel was added to the local over the air lineup that featured old tv shows. We began to renew our acquaintance with some classic shows, such as M.A.S.H., of which I have many happy memories of watching with my dad as a kid.  Watching the reruns got me to thinking about what nonprofits could learn from the show.

The “M” stands for mobile. Periodically on the show, the unit is required to “bug out” and take the hospital to a safer or more convenient location. Inevitably there’s confusion, fear, and complaining about having to uproot and move around. All that aside, the units were designed to be mobile and move around. Is your nonprofit mobile? Can you move around to where you’re needed or are you encumbered by a structure where you passively wait for your mission to find you? Just like on the show there will be fear, confusion, and a lot of complaining. If your organization can get to your members or clients first because you’re mobile or can make changes on the fly, you’ll be better able to direct your resources where they can best be used.

Be prepared to triage, accept the consequences, and move forward. One of the hardest things in an emergency is prioritizing what to do. In the case of M.A.S.H., the doctors struggle with making decisions about who to treat, leaving the most complicated and difficult cases in order to treat those with the highest likelihood of survival. If they dilly dally, more people will die, and if they mull over it they won’t be able to focus on the task at hand and save who they can save. While most nonprofits are not deciding who lives and dies, you do have to be prepared to prioritize & triage. Especially if you’re a start-up or very small. Put your resources where you will get the most bang for your buck. Beware of mission creep. Just because you CAN do something, doesn’t mean you SHOULD do it. When prioritizing, consider factors beyond money including labor needs, existing infrastructure, and potential for duplicating effort.

Know your people and what they need. When you look at the cast of characters on MASH, some of the best producers refuse to play by the rules or adapt to Army life. On the other hand, some of the people who blindly followed the policy manual created more problems and barriers to carrying out the mission. While it might not be as obvious as Klinger in an evening gown, know your people and what they need from you to be successful. Do your best to make sure they have it. What motivates your volunteers and board members for serving the organization? Is that need being filled? Do you have someone who blindly cites by-laws, policy manuals to hammer their perspective home (a la Frank Burns)? Do you have a Radar – a quiet, often over-looked person who manages to make miracles happen with limited resources? Do you have a Hawkeye who has an unconventional approach but if not supported could burnout spectacularly? Take care of your people and give them the space and resources to create, and especially recognition for what they accomplish!

Have you learned any nonprofit lessons in unexpected places?

Photo: By CBS Television (eBay item photo front photo back) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Then Stop Saying “Yes”

Carefully consider the impact of saying to yes to volunteering on your time and your other priorities.

Before you say yes to volunteering, carefully consider your values and the impact on your time and your other priorities.

I grew up watching my parents volunteer and serve in their community. And now my son has the bug. Several years ago we joined a children’s organization dedicated to American history. The children actually have leadership positions with the adults providing guidance and supervision. Over time my son has watched the older kids conduct meetings and when given the opportunity, he has said “Yes” to a variety of roles from serving as a committee chairperson to his current role as a President of our local group. Yet, when its time to do the work (or wear a suit and tie), he’s irritated by his involvement.

We are approaching the end of the program year and we’re finishing up projects and preparing several articles and reports. He says to me, “I hate this. Why did you sign me up?” I looked at him and pointed out, “Yes, I did enroll you in this organization, but you’re the one who continues to say yes when they ask you do stuff.”

This conversation lead me to examine my own reaction to volunteering. Sometimes, I really resent the intrusion on my time. I get frustrated working with different personalities and work styles. But who do I have to blame?

I concluded two things.

1. I have to model responsible volunteerism for my son. Not only agreeing to serve, but carefully considering the commitment before I accept. I don’t have to say yes. Sometimes, it’s a good idea to just be a member and not volunteer.

Organizations can help by not asking the same people over and over again and by making it easier for people to refuse. Better to get the “no” up front than think you’ve got a task covered only to be disappointed later when the person later fails to produce.

2. I have to “stay in my lane”. When I delegate a task, I have to trust and accept the end result and when I have a specific task, I need to stay focused on that task and not get sidetracked doing other people’s work.

Organizations can help by keeping tasks small and focused. Be up front about the expectations and the time commitment so individuals  can make informed decisions.

Over and over again, I see people who are overwhelmed by their commitments and ultimately resent the time they spend on them. Saying NO takes practice, but ultimately, it brings productivity and peace.

What about you? Have you found yourself over-committed? How did you cull commitments? Have you ever managed over-committed volunteers?

Leadership Lessons from the A.T.


Leaders blaze the trail. Everyone who follows brings their own energy and creativity to the path. (Photo: (c) Heather Comstock, 2013.)

I spent some time last weekend hiking a short section of the Appalachian Trail.   How did a path over 2,000 miles long through 14 states come to fruition? Through the efforts of a lot of volunteers spread out amongst those many locations. What can leaders take away from this experience? You can’t do or control it all. What happens when you share the leadership load with the rest of your organization?

1. You’ll be amazed at the interesting ideas that pop up. Your volunteers have different backgrounds and experiences.  Share the goal and ask for ideas on how to make it happen.  Likely as not, you’ll get a variety of interesting ideas for meeting that goal. I’ve learned about many interesting places and projects during group discussions that I never would have heard about otherwise.

2. You’ll find out what interests your people. When people are working on projects that they find interesting, they’ll be engaged in the process and the outcome – and stick with it through the long haul. One of the organizations where I volunteer had a discussion about fundraising events. Several ideas were put forward running the gamut from a wine tasting to yoga. Events that match volunteers interests means planning and executing these events will be more enjoyable for the volunteers and by extension will be more successful for the organization.

3. You (and other volunteers) won’t become exhausted.  We’ve all seen the organizations where one person seems to be the go-to person for everything.  How do you think that person feels?  Trapped. Resentful. Exhausted. How do you think the rest of the people in that organization feel if one person constantly runs everything?  Bored. Resentful. Disengaged. When you share the load, leaders won’t burn out like a flaming marshmallow over a campfire and volunteers won’t silently fade into the night like ninjas.

4. You can put the spotlight on someone else.  According to my dictionary, delegate comes from the Latin word meaning to send out.  When you delegate, don’t take the task back when you see an end result that doesn’t meet your expectation. Ask yourself if the goal was met. If so, let it go. Most importantly, give credit to those who made the result possible.

Delegation is a powerful tool for organizations and allows you to develop a deeper relationship with volunteers and supporters and create a more effective organization.  Delegation energizes rather than exhausts and helps your organization thrive!