Volunteer Job Descriptions are Smart Tools for Achieving Success

Several months ago, I wrote a blog about the value of qualifying board members which touched on the assumption that job descriptions for volunteers were used.  Today’s column elaborates on job descriptions to help you craft one that is a motivational and constructive tool for your volunteer committee and board members and the reasons why.  It is a Smart Tool that every nonprofit should use consistently. 

At first, this may seem like just one more piece of work for you to do, but I can assure you that it prevents confusion, clarifies responsibilities and holds volunteers accountable as well as defines roles between staff and volunteers as well as among volunteers.  Upfront I admit, I am a big advocate of job descriptions.  While they can be similar in format to an employee’s role and responsibilities, and they serve a specific purpose of defining roles, they are not the same.  Typically, they do not have the legal standing that a nonprofit’s employment documents have, and they are seldom used as a metric tool for performance.

Nonetheless, they can be a powerful recruitment tool as they inform the potential volunteer as to what is expected of them, the amount of time they may need to give and the limitations of their authority.  Volunteers have their own reasons and motivations for wanting to be on a board or committee, but they may not be expecting that there are limitations as to what they can do.  After all, they are one person with one voice on a committee or board who collectively makes decisions for the good of the organization.  While they can have great influence over the work and outcomes of the body, it is unlikely they can be singularly focused on their own agenda when they have other competent individuals serving alongside of them. 

This document should also be motivational; giving the member a clear understanding of how their contributions will be of immense value to the future success of the organization and its constituency.  Volunteer service enables members to give back to their profession, to gain new career skills and to make life long professional connections with colleagues they may not otherwise meet. 

What should be included in a job description? 

Descriptions need not be elaborate, legalistic epistles.  They should be well crafted, one-page documents outlining what this position is responsible for doing.  If you cannot come up with one, perhaps the position is not needed.  In recent years, the trend has been to downsize boards and especially board officers because it is considered as cumbersome and unnecessary to have 32 member boards with 8-10 officers.  Board with 9-15 members and four officers are much more efficient and common today, partly due to using tools and processes that streamline operations and governance.

First, I suggest creating a unique job description for each officer or committee chair as their responsibilities are specific to their position. Other board member and regular committee members’ descriptions may be duplicated if their roles and responsibilities are similar.    Before writing, review your organization’s bylaws and other legal documents to ensure that the description is aligned with these directives.

A job description should be refreshed annually and include three sections:

  1. Purpose of position – What does this position do and why. What is the expectation of the volunteer? For example:  This position is responsible for identifying taxation issues that impact all member organizations.
  2. Overview – This section clarifies:  Where it is a paid or unpaid position, confidentiality requirements, professional conduct expectations, etc. And lastly, it should motivate members to contribute their best work and business skills to the organization.  For example:  This unpaid volunteer position takes great care to exercise professionalism and confidentiality in its deliberations. 
  3. Responsibilities – Items to be included are:
  • Time Commitment
  • Responsibilities
  • Authority & supervision
  • Relationship with other board/committee members
  • Relationship with paid staff
  • Other duties

You may elect to have the job descriptions reviewed by an attorney or other nonprofit professional.  It could save you embarrassment or questions in the future.

Remember, the purpose of the volunteer job description is to create clarity about the duties and responsibilities of the committee and its individual members.  It should be similar with specific directives given as to what should be accomplished and the expectations of the volunteers serving. 

If you’d like to receive a sample job description, just drop me an email (patriciadameron17@gmail.com). 

Prepping for Next Year Yet?

Start with Looking Inward

While many of us are enjoying the summer, it’s not too early to start thinking about the new year and getting started on developing your plans, strategies and goals for next fiscal year. 

If you already are in the midst of a three plan, you may have your goals set and just need to update for recent environmental changes that have accelerated your plan or those events that have set you back.  Some organizations are starting fresh because their plan doesn’t reflect current customers’ needs or the market environment.  Or, the plan may be too dusty to be relevant.  

Wherever you are in the process, now is a good time to envision where you want your organization to be two or three years from now.  Before picking up a pen or hitting a key, take some time to reflect upon your organization’s accomplishments, acknowledge all the hard work that’s been put forth and envision your path towards the future for your organization.  Use this time during to mentally take a break from the day-to-day and “just think. ” Think of it as a mental health day away from the present!

Consider some of these questions to get you started. 

1.       If you were starting the organization from scratch now, would its purpose and mission be relevant today?

2.       Is it living up to its full potential? 

3.       Are there new opportunities that should be grasp?

4.       Is your corporate strategy acquiring and retaining customers? 

5.       Do you have the appropriate infrastructure, human resources and financial capital for today’s business needs?

6.       Are you prepared for a downturn in the economy or unexpected catastrophe?

Ponder these points before writing down any of your thoughts. Let them marinade in your mind. Make a note to check available data (internal and industry data) to ensure your thoughts are affirmed by the facts.  

Put aside your thoughts. After a few days decide if those points are still top of mind items that need to be addressed.  If so, then start to validate your beliefs, new ideas or concerns.

When you are back to work, planning and focused on the upcoming year, start with a self-assessment of your current environment with your team. Your self-assessment should be prepared with input of your staff and your board members or advisors. You, as senior management, are too close to the situation to see all facets of what’s happening in your business. 

What’s changed in your industry since your initial plan and goals were set?  Define new challenges or threats which have arisen that are impacting your organization? Has your competition eroded your growth? Or, perhaps you have missed an opportunity to bring new products/events/initiatives to market. Did you forego a money making venture intentionally or was it a missed opportunity? 

A simple SWOT analysis is a good place to start. SWOT is a scan for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. It highlights the things your business is good at and could be better at doing along with the risks you have taken and not pursued. Also take a hard look at your Key Performance Indicators (KPI) or key financial metrics to confirm that prior plans produced as expected.  Remember to consider what you should ‘stop doing’ also!

Once you’re developed the self-assessment, you most likely find you have a list of things that don’t fit in any category. Store these in a ‘to do’ list and prioritize them from 1-3. Number one meaning you should address immediately as part of you planning because they impact your organization in a severe manner (either your mission, time, money, or reputation). Number two items should be addressed but, they are less important. And, number three items can be reviewed at your leisure or dropped because they are less relevant to your mission, time, money or reputation. Perhaps they should be on the “stop doing’ list.

This self-assessment is an initial start for your planning and budgeting processes for the new year. It also gives you reasons to celebrate your accomplishments and to energize yourself and others who will make the plan happen! 

Now, go climb that mountain and see the world from a different perspective.  Relax and take advantage of some down time.  You’ll need it once you start digging in to developing and executing your plans!

Trade Shows are Valuable Marketing Tools for Industry Suppliers

The beginning of each year brings another round of trade shows for most associations.  Industry suppliers are already gearing up to meet clients and potential clients to talk business in all areas of operations and services. 

While trade shows are only one of many tools in a supplier’s sales and marketing tool chest, they are often the most expensive investment from the cost of the booth or sponsorship, travel, hotel accommodations, and meals to employee time and salaries. So, it’s imperative that they realize a return on the investment.

Here are some tips for preparing before, onsite and after a trade show to ensure you maximize your investment at the events you attend. 

Pre-Conference Preparation

  • Select an event carefully.  There are hundreds of events, forums and trade shows in most every industry, so do your homework and select only those that drill down to reach your target markets.  Research the trade show’s reputation, attendees’ buying power, topics, and supplier time allotted to choose the best one for you.  Are your competitors attending?  Is time allotted for suppliers to meet with potential clients?  Are the attendees the right people in the organization for you to reach? 
  • Select your best onsite sales team.  Designate your top-notch sales team to attend and prep them on your expectations.  Then, collectively set an expected return on your investment. The earlier they are assigned, they can prepare themselves as well as prepare to be away from home.  Please don’t use this valuable sales opportunity to ‘reward’ office staff with a trip who have not been in a sales position previously.  While they may be excellent at their company position, they may not be knowledgeable enough about your product features to answer questions and counter objections.  Thus, they may leave a less than stellar impression of your company. 
  • Prepare your target list of prospective customers. Learn as much as you can about the company and contact them before you leave to let them know you’ll be there.  Invite them to your booth or a company event early before they accept other invitations. You can also use social media posts to reinforce this message.
  • Invite your current customers to attend.  While I understand, this can be interrupted that you will pay their expenses, I am not suggesting that you do so.  That’s your call. But, attending the event can also confirm that your company is a reputable part of the industry and expose them to topics and colleagues that will strengthen their appreciation for you.  
  • Refrain from badgering prospective clients before the conference.  You can easily upset a potential client if you send them multiple emails and leave numerous phone messages when they are rushing to get their responsibilities buttoned up at work before they leave the office.  Think about it, if 300 exhibitors leave 2 messages each, that’s 600 communications to one client! 

Onsite at the trade show

  • Attend the educational sessions.  Not only will you learn about the challenges of your clients and refresh your knowledge about the industry, you can meet potential clients in a neutral environment and strike up a conversation which could lead to building a long term relationship. 
  • Focus on building relationships with potential clients not just gaining business.  The best business relationships are built on trusting, personal relationships.  So, most clients want to get to know you personally before they hand you a piece of business; especially one worth several thousand (or million) dollars. 
  • Develop relationships with other suppliers. Other suppliers, in non-competing verticals, can be great resources for future business, for sharing contacts and for discussing collaborative business opportunities.  Plus, they can become lifelong friends!
  • Practice your elevator pitch.  You may only have 30 seconds with a prospective client, make your points quickly and ask for a follow-up meeting.  Update your pitch regularly. If you company is evolving and growing, then your pitch should be also.
  • Introduce a new product or service at a trade show.  Use the event to draw attention to your company.  Also, inform the hosting organization if you have an announcement so they can help you gain publicity from any attending media.
  • Remember, you are always “on.” While experienced suppliers understand that trade shows are about business, first time exhibitors/suppliers sometimes drink and party too much causing other attendees to question their professionalism and business judgement. A potential client may like to party with you, but that doesn’t mean they want to do business with you.

Post Event

  • Follow Up, Follow Up, Follow Up with everyone you meet.  Frequently, I’ve heard from attendees that exhibitors don’t follow up afterwards.  If they ask you to do so, do it within two weeks.
  • Follow up with current customers.  Check their assessment of the conference and offer suggestions for next steps to expand your business relationships.
  • Follow up with other suppliers.  Keep the relationship alive to ensure that you build that relationship for future opportunities.  Refer them to your customers when appropriate. 
  • Respond to the conference evaluation request. Conference organizers truly appreciate your input and can only improve if you tell them what’s working or not.
  • Assess your return on your investment. While the event is still fresh in your mind, assess whether the event met your expectations.  Did your investment provide the ROI you expected? Were your expectations realistic?  Should you put it on your calendar for next year?  Conduct the same evaluation six and nine months later and evaluate your client development from the event?  To be fair, your may not see an immediate return, but your follow up may prove fruitful months or even years later. 

Have a great trade show!

Selecting Qualified Candidates as Board Members is a Win-Win for Everyone

No matter whether you are voting for a leader for a federal office, city council or for a community organization, it can be daunting to select the right person for the job.  That’s especially true if you don’t know the candidates personally.  You lack first-hand knowledge about their skills, values, motivations and intelligence doesn’t provide you assurances that you’re selecting the best qualified individual.  

Choosing a new board member for your nonprofit association is equally daunting because you sometimes lack the same knowledge of the candidates.  Plus, nonprofit boards require a selfless person who is willing to give their expertise and time for no financial gain in most instances.    So, how can you ensure the candidates who have expressed interest in serving are a good fit for your board and for the organization? 

First, ensure you have an objective candidate evaluation system in place. There are a variety of processes, procedures and policies a board can initiate to promote a system of fairness and consistent direction for selection.  Let’s discuss a few items for consideration to act as a checklist for your organization.

  • Review your organization’s bylaws.  This is the official document that governs your nonprofit’s existence and was first developed when your organization was chartered.  It covers the organization’s purpose, how it conducts business, the governing process, and board members terms, duties, etc. in general terms.  It should also have basic requirements for board members (i.e., dues paying members only).
  • Board policies. It’s always in the best interest of the organization to adopt policies addressing tenure, personal conduct, term limits and other issues credentials to ensure all board members are treated equitably and consistently.
  • Determine board member qualifications. Some organizations have a job description for board members.  Oftentimes, this document does not agree with current practice unfortunately, so it’s good practice to update the bylaws and create a board member job description to concur with what is appropriate for today’s business environment and the organization.  The board member qualifications written in the bylaws are, in many instances, intentionally vague because the bylaws usually require a more rigorous process to change.  So, job descriptions can be more easily changed with the times and be updated depending on the current needs of the organization. 
  • Conduct a Call for Board Nominations.  Open the nominations process up to all qualified members and provide an elections packet to those interested.   The packet would include an overview of the process, timeline and deadlines, bylaws, board job description, fiduciary responsibilities and a board candidate application for submittal.  All can be provided via email to control costs and can include a fill-in submittal form. This is a fair way to give all members an opportunity to serve and to express the reasons for wanting to serve plus, the contributions that he/she could make. Plus, it gives you an amazing opportunity to discover new, talented leaders among your membership!
  • Develop a board application.  The application contains basic information, such as current employment, education, work and volunteer experience, and a few questions about what the candidate can contribute and why they wish to be considered. Two pages should be adequate.  (Hint:  If a candidate won’t go through the process of completing the application, then it’s a likely signal of the amount of work he/she is willing to put into being an actual board member.)
  • Select respected members to serve on a nominating committee.  This committee, consisting of mostly non-board members, does the heavy lifting during the nominating process.  The non-board members are valuable resources because of their work, industry or business experience; not just volunteer experience.  They interview the candidates, check references (if needed), and make a recommendation to the board of the most qualified candidates to be placed on the election ballot. The Board always retains the final authority to approve the names to be placed on the ballot.
  • Conduct personal interviews.  Following a review of the candidate applications, the Nominating Committee should set up a personal interview (via phone is sufficient), with each qualified board candidate.  I suggest developing a standard set of questions to ask candidates to compare apples to apples responses.  If there are numerous candidates, a rating system will enable a fairer comparison. The personal interviews also reflect well on the organization as it emphasizes the seriousness of this decision and your respect for the candidates. 
  • Respect the candidates’ interest and time.  Communicate with the candidates throughout the process with progress reports.  They may not succeed through the process this year, but they could be excellent candidates in a future year.  So, keep the process professional recognizing that they are still a member and supporter of the organization. Next year may be their year!

One final and important note:  This process should be conducted with the utmost confidentiality and respect for the candidates involved.  Some candidates will most likely not be selected to go past the first step in the nominations process or they may be defeated if they are placed on the ballot.     It’s also their reputation at stake with their employer, their co-workers, their clients and their families.  So, respect the process you establish and always stay on good terms with the members.  The goal is for this experience to be a win-win outcome for all involved.   It’s the democratic process at work!

Ethical Guidelines are Essential

With the recent headlines and the rise of the #MeToo movement, ethical guidelines have become a necessity no matter what type of organization you represent.  Businesses, associations and nonprofits owe it to themselves and to their employees to set a standard of conduct that reflects the values of their organization.

If you do not have a published set of guidelines than put a stake in the ground, develop them and commit to them.  These guidelines are a outgrowth of your corporate values.  And, values are the foundation of an organization that sets the tone for how you conduct business.  No matter whether you are a new business or have a 100-year history behind you, it is imperative that your values reflect your organization today. Traditional values such as integrity, respect, honesty are as “tried and true” today as they ever were so don’t shy away from adopting them, if they aren’t a stated part of your organization.  But, you must mean them; they cannot be empty words!

Other values are also important to demonstrate your true commitment to making your company a great place to work and a respected part of the business community.  Choose other values that reflect what your organization stands for and expects to stand for many years ahead. Sustainability, for example, has become another value that pops up frequently today in light of the increased focused on corporate social responsibility.  

Talk with your employees, board of directors and industry suppliers about your corporate values.  Their perspectives can provide insight about how your business is already perceived.  They create your ethical guidelines.  Once you have a draft, talk with the same group about them.  Do you have buy-in?  If not, then work with them to tweak or re-write as appropriate.  If you cannot come to consensus, then I suggest you bring in an independent facilitator to help you develop them. Once complete, keep them visible at all times in your office, on your website, employee manual and in marketing media.  They are your mantra and you should be proud of them. 

Practice will never make perfect.  But, it will require you, as the leader of your organization, to practice your values and enforce your ethical guidelines consistently.  Also, be prepared to deal with those associates who don’t follow your guidelines. Ask yourself whether they are working for you or against you.  Then, it will be apparent whether they are a good fit for your organization.

Over the years, your ethical guidelines are a good barometer to check your commitment to your corporate values.

Is an Advisory Board for You?

Over the years, I’ve been honored to be asked to participate on advisory boards a few times.  Each were positive experiences for me and one I’d recommend with a caveat to understand your role before accepting. 

An advisory board typically differs from a corporate or nonprofit board of directors because these aren’t elected positions.  Advisors aren’t officially elected to the seat nor do they have a fiduciary responsibility for their actions. They are advisors only, not directors.

My first experience was for a large corporation and another was a small business.  Both were valuable experiences that enabled me to gain an insider’s look at the company, learn more about the respective industry and offer my advice.  Both were unpaid except for a stipend to travel to the meetings.

The larger corporation was a regional grocer and the experience was very structured with a formal interview before I was offered the position.  Once on board, there was an agenda for each in-person meeting, engaging discussions, and diverse opinions on the topics followed by light homework before the next meeting.  It was an educational experience for me and rewarding to interact with the other advisors.  There was always a room full of company employees listening to our comments and observations about the various topics.  I was  impressed by their follow-up afterwards via email with responses to questions they couldn’t answer during the meeting.

The small business advisory position  was more intimate and less structured.  The CEO, whom I admired, asked me to participate personally. Upon agreeing, I found the experience to be very different.  Each meeting with the other advisors was via a conference call and without an agenda.  So, there wasn’t an opportunity to give any forethought to what I could contribute to the conversation.   The CEO used this as an opportunity to update us on the company’s accomplishments or in-depth explanations about upcoming plans.  He sought our advice occasionally and we responded with comments and challenges that he pondered and took to heart. You could best define this advisory board as his accountability partners.

What strikes me as the biggest difference between the two experiences was that one was a listening event for the corporation and the other was a listening experience for the CEO.  One enabled me to contribute to the organization’s various business units while the other enabled me to influence the CEO’s thinking.  My point is, all advisory boards don’t work the same way from my experience, but each serves a valuable purpose.

If you are considering an advisory board for your business, then may I suggest you give thought to these points:

  1. Determine why you want an advisory board before you ask anyone. The advisors are different then your corporate or association/nonprofit board, since they have no fiduciary responsibilities and you don’t report to them.   So what function can they serve you?  Will it be a board that you want to seek and listen to their advice? Or, is it a board that you plan to use as a focus group for your own thoughts and plans? Are they customers?  Are they industry partners or suppliers?   If they are peers, can your ego handle their frank comments and participation? 
  2. Set your expectations with the advisors upfront. Be frank about what you don’t expect from them?  For example, if you don’t plan to give them your financial statements, then tell them.  Define if  they will be communicating with only you or your management team.  
  3. Choose wisely.  I can’t overemphasize the importance of choosing advisors wisely.  Only you know the type of person who will serve you well, but my advice is to choose individuals you respect, who share your values and who have walked in your shoes at some time.  For example, an entrepreneur who has grown a business or has expertise in a product line you’re exploring could be a good fit.
  4. Define parameters. Once you’ve affirmed that you want an advisory board, address the responsibilities of the position with them. Is there a stipend?  When are their meetings/calls? What’s the meeting format?  Are confidentiality agreements needed?  How long is their term (I recommend no more than one year.  You’ll need fresh ideas by then.)? 
  5. Prepare to give them an advance agenda.  Nothing fancy is needed, just some general topics may be enough. Most often, they will be better able to contribute their knowledge and experiences if they’ve prepared for the discussion.
  6. Listen to their input attentively. You may not always agree with them, but their intentions are most likely in your best interests. And, they are making time to focus on you and your organization. So respect their time and advice.
  7. Get to know your advisors personally. Determine if there’s an opportunity for you to reciprocate and offer your expertise, your contacts or other talents to them. Introduce them to potential customers or business partners if it’s appropriate. 
  8. Follow up with them. Because they are advisors, they will appreciate knowing when you took their advice. You owe them that.  

Remember, you aren’t marrying an advisory board, so if it doesn’t work for you the first time, then be honest with them and call it quits gracefully.  Once the timing is right, it can be a mutually beneficial relationship that can help you to grow personally and professionally as well as your business.