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Accountability for Nonprofit Board Members

In a prior post, I gave advice on how nonprofit organizations can increase commitment and motivation from board members and promised a follow-up post about how to hold volunteers accountable. Though for many, being “held accountable” is associated with negative or punitive actions, I encourage you to reframe the way you think about accountability.

When volunteers or employees are accountable, they take responsibility for their commitments and those in charge hold them responsible for doing so. It is through accountability that people learn to depend on each other and trust is built — and it allows leadership to utilize time efficiently without micromanaging.

Nonprofit board members and volunteers have many other commitments and since they’re donating their time, their accountability can naturally be weaker than it would be in an employment situation. Here are a few ways to boost accountability:

1. Make clear task assignments

Assuming you already have job descriptions in place for key positions, your people should already have a good idea of who is responsible for what tasks. But when it comes to new tasks or those that come up on-the-fly in meetings, it can be pretty vague as to who will tackle what.

If you’re a leader, make sure you’ve identified and communicated who will take charge of a new task. You can ask someone to volunteer, but don’t be afraid to make assignments — and when doing so, pay attention to my last point in this post and be careful not to overwhelm your best folks.

2. Set deadlines

While it can be hard to make specific task assignments, sometimes it’s even harder to set a deadline for them. Most nonprofit organizers know that their volunteers have other commitments, and tight deadlines might not work for everyone. However, assuming you can work to set reasonable deadlines, you’ll find this provides a very necessary measure of structure.

Don’t think of deadlines as a way of controlling volunteers; rather, consider them a way to provide people with the ability to manage their schedules more effectively. One great way to keep people committed to an agreed-upon deadline is to let them know their results or reports will be due at a meeting. It’s pretty motivating to get your tasks done when you see your name on the meeting agenda!

3. Distribute meeting minutes right away

A good meeting agenda can go a long way towards keeping a meeting focused and on track, but that’s not the only thing you need for a productive meeting. Meeting minutes, or notes taken throughout, are the best way to keep a record of decisions and task assignments and communicate those to attendees. Sadly, I’ve left countless poorly run meetings only to ask a co-worker on the way out, “So what am I supposed to do?”

Try to email meeting minutes to your group shortly after the meeting and highlight any action items. Be sure to list who is responsible for what, as well as any applicable deadlines. Doing this as a regular practice makes it so much easier for everyone to be accountable. Meeting minutes also provide excellent transparency for organizations that choose to share those minutes publicly.

4. Don’t overburden your best volunteers

If you read my prior post on nonprofit boards, you’ve seen this point before. But it bears repeating because it’s a continual problem in both for-profit and not-for-profit organizations. As a leader, you know who you can count on to get things done, and those same folks also tend to seem willing to take additional tasks. And yet, no matter how willing they seem, you need to be wary of burnout.

For organizational leaders, this means paying close attention to who has many assignments and who has few, and working to direct more tasks to those who can handle them. You may find that a set rotation of tasks or responsibilities alleviates this issue. You can even limit the number of committees each person serves on as a way to get more full involvement.

I hope these tips will help you start thinking positively about how to hold your nonprofit board members accountable. If this topic has piqued your interest and you want to delve a little more deeply into ideas about how people respond to expectations of others, I recommend Gretchen Rubin’s books Better than Before and The Four Tendencies. Here’s a summary of the main ideas of these books. The categories that Rubin created didn’t emerge out of social science research and are more anecdotal, so take them with a grain of salt; however, I find them compelling enough to share.

As always, if you’d like more information about anything I’ve discussed or are interested in a complimentary consultation, contact me today to learn more about my services!


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