Smart Tools: Volunteer Job Descriptions

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 ever 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 clarifies 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 should 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 along side 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 this 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 – I like to number these with a maximum of 5-7 items.  Items to be included are:
    1. Time commitment
    2. Responsibilities
    3. Authority & supervision
    4. Relationship with other board/committee members
    5. Relationship with Staff
    6. 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).