Board Work vs. Staff Work

Board Work vs. Staff Work

I am working with an organization right now that has more board committees than it has board members. Just related to fundraising and communications, the organization has a Development Committee, a Corporate Relations Committee, a Fundraising Committee, a Membership Committee, a Newsletter Committee, a Publications Committee, an Outreach Committee, and two “Events” Committees. Several of these committees have only one person on them, and some have non-board members on them as well. But all of them are expected to make reports at board meetings. I’m not making this up!

OK, so that’s an extreme case, but many organizations have variations on this theme. How did we get here? Let’s return for a moment to some basic ideas about board work versus staff work.

When weeds need to get pulled, sometimes we get volunteers to help pull them. Sometimes board members pull weeds, too. That doesn’t make weed-pulling part of a board member’s job description.

When appeal letters need to get folded, stuffed, and stamped, sometimes we get volunteers to help fold, stuff, and stamp them. Sometimes board members fold, stuff, and stamp appeal letters, too. That doesn’t make appeal folding, stuffing, and stamping part of a board member’s job description.

The same kind of logic equally applies to bookkeeping, easement drafting, preserve managing, membership “renewaling”, community outreach, and field trip leading. Each of these activities could be done effectively by staff. Sometimes the “staff” who do the work do not get paid for it. They’re volunteers. When your organization has no staff, and volunteers do the work, sometimes those volunteers are board members. That doesn’t make any of these activities board work either.

For convenience sake, I call all of these activities “staff” work. Again, sometimes that staff is paid. Sometimes they’re volunteers. For organizations without paid staff, these volunteers should report to a board committee. Paid staff members more typically report to an Executive Director, who reports to the board.

So what is “board” work? In fact, board work comes down to just a few items:

  • Governance: What is it that the organization is here to do? (Goals) How will the organization accomplish those things? (Strategies) And how will it be organized to make decisions and get the work done? (By-Laws, Policies, Guiding Principles, Operating Standards)
  • Management: Are we doing what we said we would? Are we internally compliant with our own standards and rules? Are we externally compliant with laws and regulations?
  • Fundraising: Do we have the resources necessary to accomplish what we set out to do? (Time, talent, treasure) What strategies will we employ to attract and retain those resources?
  • Celebration: Board members lead the cheerleading when positive results are accomplished.

In my view, every organization needs about five committees, including a (single) committee focused on fundraising and building relationships with donors. This committee, call it the Resource Development Committee, should be focused on getting board members and donors together (cultivation) and regularly asking interested people to invest in the programs and projects (solicitation).

The Resource Development Committee can and should delegate responsibility for specific pieces of fundraising work to staff (both paid and volunteer) and should monitor their progress. Examples include getting renewal letters out, writing grants, creating and distributing newsletters, managing a Facebook page, and organizing specific events. If the “staff” involved are volunteers, they may or may not be board members. They should have clear direction and limits on their authority, and they should report back to the Resource Development Committee. If the staff are paid, board members should remove themselves from these activities even further. Either way, board member work increasingly relates to cultivating and soliciting major donors.

Just to examine one example more fully, consider the Membership Committee in my client example above. This committee is organizing volunteers to staff membership booths at public events, mailing out an annual recruitment letter, renewing all current members, and managing a definitive current member list for publication. The committee is chaired by a board member, but it really wouldn’t need to be. The committee should have a job description (sometimes it’s called a “charter”), that defines its work and provides needed authorities to represent the organization.

If and when the organization grows to the point that it hires someone to do this work, that someone would replace the committee. I see many cases where this transition does not happen, and volunteers stay involved and invested in membership. This is inefficient at best, and at worst, distracting from higher-level board fundraising activities.

So what will we do with all these committees? It will be up to the organizational leaders of course, but my suggestion is that they combine all the committees into just one Development Committee. Current committees of just one person or two people could simply develop a “job description” of their work and carry on. Larger efforts might warrant “sub-committees,” but most such efforts are limited in time and scope, so they are better given “ad-hoc” status. The Annual Fundraising Event, for example, lends itself to an ad-hoc committee approach.

How are board fundraising committees working – or not working – for you?

I’ll share all the stories I hear about.




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

  • Taking the Time to Write Well – We too often sacrifice quality of writing for quantity and speed. In doing so, communication suffers and we enjoy it less. Email is a burden. Reports are skimmed, if they’re read at all. And everything we produce is high-stress, last minute, eleventh-hour, right before the deadline. We need to anticipate more. Get ahead of the curve. Let our writing steep more. Write in such a way that our audiences will read it. Being more effective communicators.
  • Writing Thank You Letters – Write and design your Thank You letters to be “fridge worthy.”
  • Writing Renewal Letters – Renewal letters are pretty short and sweet. You should plan an initial letter and up to three follow-up letters spaced about 4-5 weeks apart. Because you know already who should be renewing this year and when, and because you can write letters now that will work as first letters the remainder of the year, you could actually produce all your renewal letters for 2016 right now, and get that part over with. Then set them up by date in a box and put them in the mail during the year when the dates come around.
  • Writing Appeal and Recruitment Letters – It’s not too early to start working on ideas for spring and fall appeal content either.

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


Photo credit: Photo by Josh Felise courtesy of

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