10/22/07 — Boards seek new volunteers to serve

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Boards seek new volunteers to serve

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on October 22, 2007 1:45 PM

A year ago this month, the problems surrounding the fiscal viability of The Lighthouse of Wayne County began becoming public, and eventually, the domestic violence organization was forced to shutter its doors and begin the process of closing its books.

It was, said board member Cindy Sanford, the result of poor management from the top, down -- proof that even for a volunteer board of directors, good intentions and a desire to help isn't enough.

But The Lighthouse isn't the only nonprofit organization in Wayne County relying on volunteers to direct its operations.

Barbara Stiles, director of Volunteer Wayne and Wayne RSVP (the Retired and Senior Volunteer Program), said there are more than 70 nonprofit organizations, and each has a board that often is faced with more responsibilities than many people -- sometimes including the members themselves -- realize.

"A lot of people don't really know what all is involved," Mrs. Stiles said. "It takes a lot of dedication and hard work."

When board members agree to serve, she explained, they are agreeing to be active participants in directing the organization, managing its resources, planning for its future, enhancing its image, recruiting new members and maintaining a high level of legal, ethical and fiscal accountability.

And, she continued, while not every board member has to be skilled in those areas, the board's makeup should include people with experience in finance, law, administration, education, marketing and human resources.

Most important, though, she said, every board member must have a passion for his or her organization.

"There are about 16 boards I sit on in Wayne County," said Jimmie Ford, a Wayne Community College retiree and now a private motivational speaker. Those range from the United Way -- for which he serves as campaign chairman this year -- and the Salvation Army, to Communities in Schools and WATCH.

"It takes time and sometimes I wonder myself how I manage all of them, because it seems like I'm going just about every day," he said. "But I've always been an active participant in the community.

"I'm a weakling for saying no. People ask me, and I see a new way I can contribute, so I sign on. I just love helping people."

And for many board members, that's their motivation.

"We were taught (by my mother) that you have to contribute -- that when you live in a place, you have to give back," said Jane Rustin, director of Wayne County Public Libraries and board member for WAGES, United Way and Wayne Historical Association, among others.

But for many organizations, finding volunteers with a similar mindset is not always easy.

"We all believe that if somebody feels strongly enough, they'll do anything, but they've got to know how important it is and that it will be meaningful," Ms. Stiles said.

Many people worry, though, that with the most active volunteers past retirement age, that a void will develop as they start to age out.

It's a feeling, however, not shared by Evelyn Jefferson, a retiree herself and a member of the Wayne RSVP and WAGES Senior Companion boards, among others.

She thinks volunteerism is a cyclical process -- that many people volunteer as teenagers and then stop in their 20s, 30s and 40s as they begin their careers and start raising their families. She expects that as baby boomers and others reach retirement age, they, too, will begin volunteering more.

"My belief is as they grow older and reach my age, they will (volunteer). It happened to me. It's just a revolving circle. I think we'll have somebody volunteering all the time," Ms. Jefferson said.

But she agreed that today, people need a convenient way of learning what options are available.

That's why clearinghouse type organizations like Volunteer Wayne and Wayne RSVP exist.

"It's hard work trying to get people on these boards, but you've got to try and identify people. You've got to recruit," Ford said. "A lot of times, people aren't going to come to you. You've got to go to them."

But simply identifying people and asking them to serve isn't enough.

As the case with The Lighthouse shows, they also have to be trained and encouraged to be active participants.

When she came onto The Lighthouse's board in early 2006, Mrs. Sanford explained, there was little communication about what the organization was doing or what shape it was in. She explained that she had to ask to see not only the group's financial records, but also its bylaws.

"(The board members) had a distinct passion for the cause and I think they were eager to help, but I don't know that they were given the right guidance," she explained.

It wasn't until she and several other new members began poking around that the scope of the problem was realized.

"I think if that would have happened a year ago, we might have been able to turn it around," Mrs. Sanford said.

And, Mrs. Stiles added, that is exactly what board members should be doing -- asking questions.

"You need to find out all you can beforehand. A lot of people get disappointed. They say, 'yeah, I'll be on the board.' Then they find out that they're actually there to work, and they quit or just don't come (to meetings)," Ford said.

Most boards, though, Mrs. Stiles said, do a good job of orienting their members and explaining when meetings are, how much time is required, what their specific duties will be and how the organization itself is doing.

In addition, recommended Sudie Davis, director of Communities in Schools and a member of WISH and chairwoman of the Juvenile Crime Prevention Council, people also should be sure their organizations all have liability insurance for the boards and directors.

"It's a financial constraint for nonprofits," she admitted. "But you never know when something could happen."

But the best insurance policy, she continued, is an engaged and active board striving to do everything by the book.

"It's all about risk management," Mrs. Davis said. "It's really important for the board to know the agency is doing all the right things."