Governance Articles

Who Is Driving Your Association? Defining Volunteer and Staff Roles by Building a "Chinese Wall"

For decades, controversy has ranged over whether an association should be "staff-driven" or "volunteer-driven." Over time, both terms have taken on negative meanings. Volunteers often charge that "runaway staff is trying to hijack the association from its members." Staff often complains of volunteer meddling into day-to-day affairs of the association while neglecting the big picture.

The truth is that an association is in trouble if it thinks in terms of who is in the saddle.

If an association has strong volunteer leadership and weak staff leadership, it has marionette management. Staff dances to the tune of people who have only occasional involvement in day-to-day challenges and thus cannot make informed tactical decisions. No association can function effectively with marionette management.

If an association has a strong staff and a weak board, it has entrepreneurial management. Lacking clear direction from the volunteer board, the staff expands its decision-making from the tactical to the strategic, and the board rubber-stamps staff decisions.

An association can be run very efficiently by entrepreneurial staff, but eventually the members will realize that although they are paying the dues, someone else is calling the shots. Ultimately this ends in conflict, or else the association perishes from member apathy.

The third type of association structure is chaos management. Here both the volunteer board and the staff are weak and indecisive, and are constantly buffeted about by change. Such an association is like a ship without a rudder in the midst of a storm. Ultimately it ends up on the rocks.

The fourth and ideal variety of association organization is partnership management. In a partnership-based association, both the volunteer board and the staff are powerful and competent, yet there is little conflict between them. There are clearly defined roles for both the board and the staff, and they are separated by what I call the "Chinese wall."

On one side of the Chinese wall are the tasks for which the board must retain ultimate responsibility. Staff can participate, it can assist, it can advise -- but decision-making is ultimately the responsibility of the board.

The responsibilities for which the board is clearly responsible are all strategic -- thinking ahead and deciding where the association ought to go beyond the current year. These responsibilities include environmental scanning and visioning, assessing the association's opportunities and threats, and its strengths and weaknesses in addressing them. These responsibilities include establishing a mission, setting goals and strategies, adopting broad policies to govern how the goals are to be achieved, and approving budgets. The board also has the responsibility for evaluating how well staff has done in carrying out the goals it has adopted.

On their side of the wall, the board calls the shots and the staff plays a supportive role.

On the other side of the wall, staff has primary responsibility for strategy implementation. This means translating the goals, objectives, strategies and policies adopted by the board into workable action plans and program budgets, together with procedures to carry them out.

On the staff side of the wall, there is room for participation by volunteers. Members can serve on committees or perform tasks that implement the strategies adopted by the board. But since implementation is staff's responsibility, volunteers who work on these activities do so under staff direction. Example: staff organizes a lobbying visit to Capitol Hill or a speaking tour for association spokespersons.

The trouble comes when either the board or the staff tries to burrow through the Chinese wall instead of staying on their own side. For example, the volunteer chair of the public relations committee may insist on rewriting news releases, selecting specific media, or planning special events.

Conversely, the government relations director may jump the established procedures and strike a deal on an important piece of legislation without consulting the volunteer leadership. This is asking for trouble.

An important reason why so many strategic plans fail is that they do not clarify the respective roles of volunteers and staff. Remember the Chinese wall, and you will avoid this pitfall at your association.

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