A Few Thoughts on Unpaid Staff

A Few Thoughts on Unpaid Staff

Does your Board meet to organize Board work, or to organize staff work?

Let’s say a Board member turns out on a Saturday afternoon to help remove invasive weeds from one of the preserves. Does that make pulling weeds Board work?

I think most of us would agree that it does not. And neither does writing and editing the newsletter, sending out renewal notices to members, writing grants, organizing the annual event, keeping the books, and so on – even if and when these volunteer jobs are being performed by Board members.

This is arguably easier to see when the job is pulling weeds, but what about legal work, accounting, land acquisition, and preserve management? Answer: The principle still applies – these are staff functions.

I have begun to see all of these jobs as staff jobs, even if the staff person doing them is unpaid. In fact, taken to its logical extreme, the role of Executive Director is a staff role, even when the person assuming that position is not paid.

The implications of this argument are not trivial. Every organization needs staff positions. In fact, every land trust arguably needs at least the following staff:

  • Executive
  • Land Acquisitions
  • Preserve Management
  • Easement Monitoring
  • Bookkeeping
  • Membership
  • Communications

In organizations that have staff, most of these positions report to the Executive. The Executive alone reports to the Executive Committee. Why should it be different when these positions are unpaid?

Much has been made and continues to be made about so-called working boards versus governing boards. And much has been made about organizations that are beginning to shift from one to the other, usually with the hiring of the first paid staff. I have often argued that working boards are still called upon to govern. But when the “working” part gets confused with the “governing” part, chaos and/or dysfunction can ensue. And that is not sustainable.

So imagine what it would look like if the governance-specific roles of the Board and the various committees were to be clearly spelled out in Committee Charters, and the working-specific jobs were to be clearly spelled out in Job Descriptions.

If it became difficult to recruit volunteers into the various unpaid staff roles without accepting them as Board members also, so be it. But organizations could also abandon the assumption that all unpaid staff positions had to be filled by Board members (or worse, by Board committees!), thereby opening up other recruitment possibilities.

Meanwhile, governance functions would become less confusing. Limits on authority would become more easily drawn. Accountability would be more efficient (unpaid staff person to unpaid executive).

And Board committees could go back to organizing Board (governance) work instead of staff work.

What do you think?






PS: Don’t get me wrong – I know of NO organization that operates like this. Do you?


Photo credit: Bottle Gentian courtesy of Northeast Wisconsin Land Trust.

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Fundraiser’s Almanac
Here’s what I’m thinking about for March. What are YOU thinking about?

  • Spring Appeal Planning – I could print all of my Spring Appeal letters NOW, even if they won’t be mailed until April or May. Getting ahead is GOOD. I’ll need a great project to raise money for, a four-page letter, something to add texture to the envelope, and a segregated membership list (so I can ask for different amounts from each sub-audience).
  • Editing Appeal Letters – The secret to good writing is good editing. I will want to draft my Spring Appeal letter any way it comes out – just to get it done. I’ll make it long enough to work with – 4-5 pages at least. I’ll tell a story and weave the story all the way through. Then, when I’m mostly happy with it, I’ll follow these steps to editing. Much of it is counter-intuitive, so I’ll close my eyes and trust the advice – at least this once – against all objections – and most especially my own. Why? Because I’ll raise more money!
  • Print the First Renewal Letters Now – Right now, I know every member who will be renewing this year. I know what they gave last year about this time. And I know what I will be asking them to give this year. In other words, I have everything I need to merge their letters and print them – right now – in March. Why not do it?
  • Researching Foundation/Corporate Grants and Calendaring Due Dates – I’m going to take some time now, in March, to schedule and conduct a brainstorming meeting with three or four colleagues – including program staff if possible. Specifically, I’ll be reviewing current grantor relationships and going over where I might be with current funding. I’ll be using volunteers to conduct foundation research, so it will be helpful if that volunteer can participate in this meeting as well. We’ll make a list of grantors and grants of which the group may have personal knowledge. Also we’ll brainstorm a list of key search words the volunteer could use in the research.
  • Donor Strategies: Good News, Save the Date – The most persistent barrier to successful major gift fundraising is that board members do not know the donors and donors don’t know the board. Two underused strategies for donor cultivation are Good News and Save the Date events. Good News is just something that has recently happened that I can share before it becomes more commonly known. A project closed, a preserve opened, a nesting pair discovered, a key staff member hired, a child delighted. It can be small or huge. I’m going to make sure that my board members are the conveyors of that news. What matters is that we thought highly enough of the donors’ role that we chose to deliver the news personally. And let’s face facts. Some donors and prospects can’t or won’t meet personally with us. So sending a Save the Date message may prove helpful instead.


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Will I see you at a conference this spring? This spring I’m heading to state conferences in Maine, New York, and Pennsylvania. I’m also planning to attend the River Rally in Mobile, Alabama.

Will I see you there?

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