Is it a conflict of interest for a board member of an organization to serve as a volunteer: Part 2

Boards of nonprofits and public bodies occasionally have questions about how to handle individuals serving in two roles, here are some thoughts

Board member as volunteer – how can we make this situation work well for all involved? The first three thoughts are contained in part one of this Michigan State University Extension article series. Here are the rest, with a final thought on achieving success in this situation:

  • The roles of volunteer and board member are VERY different. An individual doing both would need to be very conscious of which hat they are wearing and serve in the proper role. A volunteer is a worker, who carries out instructions from staff, and follows organization policy, without playing the “director” card and constantly questioning the policy. A board member is part of a board that must function as a single body to be effective. As a member of this board, an individual director should think about the overall good of the organization and those it serves. The individual director must be willing to make compromises in order to work with other board members, and to create organization policies that take into consideration the needs of all stakeholders, and meet the needs of many different considerations like legal requirements, good human resource management practices, current financial ability of the organization, etc. Those board discussions benefit from hearing the views and experiences of the volunteer, but the volunteer has to offer those in the context of taking a long term, organization wide view, not from the viewpoint of, “I have to get this done in a certain way to benefit the volunteers”.
  • Leaders who find themselves in this situation often come to this with some prior experience with a volunteer on a board who could not, and/or would not, separate the two roles, and sometimes believe it is not possible to serve in both capacities at the same time.
  • Finally, as I said earlier, it is not easy to be always wearing the appropriate hat for the role one is in at the moment, when that person serves in multiple roles. Any individual attempting to do this will find that failure to keep the roles separate will result in MUCH personal frustration, as well as creating difficulties, both small and large, for the organization.

So…can it work? I believe so, but keep in mind that I am a crazy optimist. The people in this type of situation are likely to make it work ONLY if all involved are willing to work at building a relationship of trust, if all commit to work together to be in the proper role, and to gently remind each other (and gently accept those reminders) when they step over the line, and the volunteer serving as a board member agrees up front to step down from one of the roles if he or she finds it too difficult to keep their focus on the role they are serving at any given point in time.

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