Organizational Structure

Role in All Volunteer Organizations

Most nonprofits start as all-volunteer organizations (AVO), without a paid staff. The organization operates with the support of its board and maybe additional volunteers. Many nonprofits remain AVOs during their entire existence; they often function as grass-root organizations that build on the passion and commitment of their volunteer force.

As we have already mentioned, a board is necessary for a nonprofit - whether it is a small start-up entity or a major multi-million dollar tax-exempt corporation. In an AVO, however, individual board members' responsibilities have a special character. The basic governance duties remain the same; the board's role does not vary. But board members start wearing different hats depending on what role they are assuming at any given moment.

Because there is no paid staff to run the operations, the board needs to divvy up the daily tasks among individual members and/or recruit additional volunteers to help. What needs to be accomplished naturally depends on the individual organization but somebody must open the mail and process checks, do the bookkeeping, carry on communication with the community, plan and execute fundraising activities, file the necessary legal forms, and naturally lead and execute all the program and service activities.

The board together makes the decisions on how to delegate the duties and to ensure everyone remains accountable and responsive. The board can assign duties to individuals or form committees and task forces. This is one of the few times when it is advisable and necessary to form board committees that relate to operational issues.

The main challenge facing individual board members is to realize which hat they are wearing at any given moment. When acting as a board member, the individual is part of the group and makes organizational decisions by voting. When carrying on operational or administrative tasks, the individual must follow the directives that the board assigned to him or her - not get carried away and deviate from the main direction or the mission.

Equally, it is important to keep in mind adequate segregation of duties. The same person should not handle all the financial issues from opening the mail to preparing financial statements. It may be a challenge to find a different person for each task but outside volunteers can be recruited to keep the books or prepare the statements.

When (or if) the first staff person is hired, the board goes through another demanding challenge. As the staff size increases, the board will gradually have to learn to let go of the operational tasks and start focusing on its primary role: governance. This is often a difficult period for the board. Members have to give up the immediate gratification received from accomplishing specific tasks. Governance work usually does not show instantaneous results. Patience is needed as the board is involved in planning and leading and somebody else is implementing and making things happen. Being aware of this change in roles can help the board avoid micromanagement in the future.