Category Volunteer & Board Leadership

How to Motivate People When Pay is Off the Table

How to Motivate People When Pay is Off the Table

An interesting theme ran through several conversations I had over the past few weeks. People are frustrated in volunteer roles. Non-profit leaders can’t figure out how to engage volunteers. They want to know how to motivate people, which can be especially tricky in situations where pay isn’t involved. In this case, for volunteers.

Interestingly, the frustrated volunteers were exactly the type of people the other group was looking for.

After spending a significant amount of time in the non-profit sector and working with military reservists and cadets, I saw several very comprehensive programs established to lead volunteers effectively. Quite frankly, those efforts kept those who didn’t know how to lead employed and gave consultants a decent revenue stream.

(While you’re here, don’t miss this post next: Can You Name the 9 Essential Qualities of a Leader?)

Leading Volunteers vs. Employees

In my opinion, the only difference between leading a volunteer and leading employees is a system of compensation.

I recall a staff meeting when a manager started complaining about volunteers who were given tasks, and when that staff person checked in after a couple of months, the work was not done to her satisfaction. I spoke up and asked, “what would you do if one of your paid supervisors left another employee for months with poorly defined tasks and then got angry when it wasn’t done right?”

The response … “I would discipline them!” Really! The only problem I had was to figure out if this person was the pot or the kettle.

A terrific friend of mine who is a very accomplished businessperson and a community leader of the highest order related to me was asked to participate in a membership drive.

At the inaugural committee meeting, a consultant sat everyone down. Next, they instructed all of the volunteers on what they must do as part of the committee. These volunteers are all very accomplished in their own right. For them, being treated like five-year-olds must be very off-putting.

How would you respond if this was your boss talking to you like that? Let alone how you might respond
as a volunteer.

(Do you have volunteers working alongside paid staff? Then take a look at this post next)

I served with volunteers who, when given authority, responsibility, and were held to account, led the responses to some of the most complex disasters of our time. I saw reservists (when treated like the professional soldiers they were) accomplish superhuman tasks.

How to Motivate People When Pay Isn’t on the Table

If you want to know how to motivate people, paid or not, it might take going back to basics. Consider what motivates you, other than money, and imagine those same things motivate your volunteers.

Here are some ideas.

Whether paid or unpaid, people want to:

  • Have honourable and engaging work to do
  • Receive clear expectations
  • Feel they are part of something bigger than they are
  • Be employed at or above their current capacity
  • Get respect and appreciation

Could you use a little more guidance with motivating and leading your team? We should talk. Click here to read about my one-on-one coaching and get in touch.

Did you learn a lot about how to motivate people in this post?

Here are three more to read next:

This post was first published in 2017, but it was updated in 2021 just for you.

10 Question You’ll Hear When There is Conflict Between the Board & The Executive Director. And 20 Things That Can Be Done to Address It.

Board/Executive Director Tensions

This article was originally published on July 27, 2015, and has been updated.

In any traditional workplace, some level of conflict or tension is bound to arise at some point. Often, this workplace conflict occurs between the board of directors and the executive director.

It should be no surprise that when power is shared there is tension – and the board of directors’ oversight role brings a level of tension to the board/executive director relationship because of the fundamental sharing of power at its core.

There are no firm guidelines about where board oversight leaves off, and executive management begins. And in this grey area, struggles for power and authority naturally emerge.

But I would say that 99 times out of 100 the workplace conflict that arises between the board of director and the executive director boils down to a simple question:

Who is ultimately in charge here?

The power struggle and conflict between the board of directors and the executive director is a representation of this question being answered, as one body may ultimately prevail in the decision making process.

This process doesn’t have to be as difficult as it may have been in the past. There are plenty of tools for handling the conflict between the board and the executive director to maintain or establish a peaceful and productive workplace.

To help begin the process of resolving workplace tension, these are some of the questions whose answers will bring some clarity to the situation.

What does it look and sound like when these natural tensions become unhealthy?

  1. When workplace tension becomes unhealthy, the members of the board might start saying to themselves:
  • The executive director gets so defensive when I ask her for something.
  • The executive director won’t let us exercise proper fiscal oversight.
  • The first I heard about our funding cuts was in the newspaper.
  • The executive director doesn’t recognize my authority.
  • I’m not sure the executive director is right for the job, but I don’t want to say anything that would offend him.

The Executive Director’s Perspective

  1. Or, the Executive Director starts saying to themselves:
  • The board is questioning everything I do.
  • I can’t even order stationery without the board wanting to get involved.
  • I don’t want the board breathing down my neck when things are so tough right now.
  • The board chair doesn’t recognize my authority.
  • The board doesn’t trust me.

Why is There Tension in the First Place?

I wrote about much of this in the first two posts of this series: What Matters Most! 2 things you can do to stop sucking the life out of your Board of Directors and four things you can do not to be bored by your board experience!

But to summarize, that tension is caused by:

  1. Lack of information or clarity about roles and tasks.
  2. Change
    • Board and executive director roles shift.
    • The needs of the organization have changed and/or are unclear.
  3. Board practices do not support their oversight work.
    • Board members lack focus.
    • There are no appropriate mechanisms for evaluating the executive director.
    • There is not a way to effectively communicate priorities and decisions from the board to the executive director.
  4. Incompatible assumptions and styles.
    • Some executive directors do not want to be held accountable by the board.
    • Board members behave in ways that make collaboration difficult.
    • Personalities clash.

Roles In Moving Forward When Managing Board/Executive Director Conflicts

As always, how you proceed will depend on the true cause of the tension(s).

What follows are some alternatives based on those causes:

1. Are you the board chair?

  • If you are part of the conflict with the executive director, assign another board member to take the lead on the situation and be willing to follow his/ her leadership.
  • If you think that the conflict is rooted in a poor understanding by board members of their role(s), propose a board self-assessment process.
  • If you think that the conflict is due to personalities, meet individually with the people involved to mirror your observations, and help to broker a relationship between the executive director and the board member(s) involved.
  • Get more information about executive director evaluation from outside sources, and propose a process back to the executive director and the board.
  • Initiate a strategic planning process to clarify where the organization is headed and what kind of leadership is needed to move it there.
  • Get help from a knowledgeable nonprofit professional or board member of another organization that has gone through something similar.

2. Are you on the executive or personnel committee?

  • Talk to the board chair and work with him or her to develop a solution.
  • Report your observations in executive session and work with other committee members to plan a way of addressing the issue.
  • Get help from a knowledgeable nonprofit professional or board member of another organization that has gone through something similar.
  • Get more information about executive director evaluation and propose a process back to the executive director and the board.

3. Are you a board member?

  • Talk to the board chair and work with him or her to develop a solution.
  • If you are not part of the conflict, talk to the executive director to see how s/he is experiencing the situation and develop a game plan for addressing what is going on.
  • Name what you are seeing at a board meeting to get people to acknowledge the tensions and start to find a way to work on them.
  • Get help from a knowledgeable nonprofit professional or board member of another organization that has gone through something similar.

4. Are you the executive director?

  • Talk to the board chair, particularly if s/he is not involved in the conflict, and ask him or her to speak with the board member(s) involved.
  • Give the board chair and other board leaders information about board roles, board self-evaluation, the difference between management and governance, conflict resolution and other materials that might help diffuse the tension.
  • Be sure to acknowledge positive board member activities and contributions publicly. Sometimes all people want is to be stroked a little.
  • Talk to a peer to see how they have handled a similar situation.
  • Talk to the board members involved from an objective, task-oriented perspective rather than a personalized, confrontational perspective, to see if a workable solution can be reached between you.
  • Make sure that you are giving people what they legitimately need to fulfill their governance responsibilities, including financial information, program performance information, and policies for internal controls and personnel.

How Outside Expertise Can Help

Here are some ways that consultants or other outsiders (including funders) can help to resolve a conflict situation. These outside professionals can:

  1. Assess the situation and have frank conversations with those involved in the role they have played in creating the conflict, and the role they must play in resolving the conflict.
  2. Coach the parties involved to help them develop a new perspective about (and more effective response to) the situation.
  3. Act as neutral mediators who work with the parties involved to sort through the issues until the real cause of the tension is identified, and to then help those involved come up with a plan to address those issues.
  4. Offer alternatives for addressing the issues and help people get past their “either-or” thinking.
  5. Defuse some of the tension by letting people vent and give their concerns a full airing.
  6. Change the nature of the conversation from accusations into productive questions about the needs of the organization.
  7. Facilitate meetings of the people involved to help them come to agreements.
  8. Educate the board about appropriate governance roles.
  9. Educate the executive director about how to work with the board.

What About the Cost?

Getting professional help to work through conflict usually takes money.

Although organizations are often reluctant to let their funders know that there are internal problems, many groups find that a long-term funder is willing to help a grantee secure the expertise they need to work through the situation. Funders feel that they have made an investment in the success of the organization and will sometimes step up in a crisis.

In fact, sometimes it is the funders themselves who call on the board and executive director to address underlying issues that they see as a threat to the future stability of the organization.

Putting it All Together

Now that we know some of the potential causes of workplace conflict between the board and the executive of the board, we can begin to address the tension. By asking specific questions to narrow in on the root of the tension, a path to resolution can be paved which will lead to a healthier and more productive work environment.

Have you ever been the victim of being a Board of Directors member or supporting staff?

Boards of Directors have been the subjects of many conversations lately. A close friend working with an agency that funds & supports not-for-profits told me that Board of Directors/Executive Director relationships are at an all-time low. Simultaneously I am hearing from more and more people who are disappointed with their involvement as Board members.

Why? In my opinion, there are a couple of reasons for this:

  1. Recent Federal legislation impacting Charities have raised the legal & fiduciary responsibilities of Boards and individual Directors. Therefore, people on Boards of Directors or considering joining a Board of Directors are taking that role much more seriously: and, rightfully so!
  1. Charities want to grow and expand and therefore are recruiting high-potential members to do that very thing. The very nature of those Board of Directors members causes them to question and make demands of the organization. This often rubs the senior staff person the wrong way.
  1. The CEO/ED is, in fact, the Board’s employee. YES … Employee! And I bet $100 that most Boards of Directors and most CEO/ED’s are not truly aware of what that means or the implications of that employee/employer relationship.
  1. The ED/CEO is often the founder or ‘founder-like’ of the organization. They put their heart & soul into it, and when the Board of Directors asks questions or challenges the staff person’s position, it becomes a very personal matter … emotions take over, and problems ensue.

The Point?

Boards of Directors should be considered the same as any team of the organization. To be certain, they are an important team as they are, or represent, the owners of that organization. The ED/CEO needs to understand that they are an important part of the organization, but they are not the ‘Owner.’

The Board of Directors must understand that they are the ED/CEO’s boss and must act as such. There are litanies of examples where that employee/employer relationship is so poisonous that the organization is put into peril. Boards have, sometimes, treated the ED/CEO is a manner that would never fly in the Board Members place of employment.

The Board of Directors and the ED/CEO should be like any other high-performance team. They should be competent, coordinated, collegial and focused on an unambiguous goal. And, to ensure High performance the Board should maintain a laser-like focus on the following aspects:

  1. The Right Role
  2. The Right People
  3. The Right Agenda
  4. The Right Information
  5. The Right Culture

Oh yeah, each member of this Team, volunteer or staff, should realize that they are not Hunter Harris and a group of activist shareholders taking over CP Rail; get over themselves; and, focus on what is truly important … the health of their organization and the people they serve

If this was of interest click here, read my thoughts about engaging volunteers

4 things you can do to not be bored by your board experience!

I have been blogging for over a year now and one of the subjects that consistently receive the most readers is Boards of Directors and Board & Staff relation. I have decided to delve into this subject deeper with a 3-Part long blog format.


Have you ever been the victim of being a Board of Directors member or supporting staff?

You have been on a Board of Directors for four meetings and you are already frustrated?

Welcome to Part 1: I didn’t sign up for this!

If ever a group regularly took the blame for the state of the non-profit sector it is Boards of Directors. One can barely read anything published about charities and non-profits without reading something disheartening about Boards of Directors.

You likely have heard the litany of things that Boards of Directors are blamed for: They won’t fundraise; They don’t know their role; They leave their brains at the door; They do things they would never do in their own businesses; etc. To hear that you have to wonder if each and every Board of Directors is in dire need of board development assistance and by extension that each and every individual board members is at fault?

I certainly do not believe that in is fair to place the full burden of this issue at the feet of Board members, but clearly, the degree of dissatisfaction people have with their board experience is trying to tell us something – that the system of “non-profit governance” as we know it is not working.

Maybe it is time to stop looking at governance as a “problem to be solved,” and instead see governance as an “opportunity.” As a great friend once addresses a group of governance volunteers, she said: ‘ the bylaws only prescribe the Council with a couple things it must do … It says nothing about what you can’t do.”

It is time to focus.

Ask board members why they join boards and you will get answers like: They care about the cause; They want to be associated with an honourable organization; and, They want to make a difference.

Now ask those same board members what they talk about at board meetings, and I would bet it is not about caring and making a difference. They are not focusing on what matters most to them, to the organization, and to their communities.

So what has governance been focusing on? To answer that, we need to look at all the functions of being a board.

There are four functions every board addresses in some way or another:

  1. Leadership: Ensuring the organization is creating as much community impact as possible
  2. Legal: Ensuring the organization is complying with all its legal obligations.
  3. Operations: Ensuring the organization’s work is getting done and being done ethically, legally and effectively.
  4. Board Mechanics: The day-to-day work of what it takes to be a successful board (recruitment, policy-setting, etc.)

Where Are Boards Aiming Their Efforts?

As we consider those 4 functions of board work, some interesting things reveal themselves.

  • Only the leadership function is about creating results on behalf of the communities we serve.
  • The other three functions – legal oversight, operational oversight, and board mechanics – are all about how the organization does its work.
  • Boards are taught that if its financial, the internal means and HR house is in order and the board has talked about its mission at least once during the year – most board evaluations would say that board is “effective.”

In theory an organization could be dubbed “excellent” if it were 100% focused on HR, Finances and the mechanics of Board operations and didn’t help a single client.

The Results

The vast majority of board members volunteer significant amounts of their time to serve on boards because they care about the cause and want to help create change. But given how many Boards operate, what happens to the people who serve on them:

  1. Organizations lose a valuable strategic resource

Boards could be the inspired champions for creating significant, visionary, long term impact in our communities. They could be the link to all the potential and all the engaged energy of the whole community. Instead, they are “pushing papers around” and eating cold pizza.

  1. Boards suck the life out of the directors

Because the reason they joined the board is absent from what boards actually focus on, board members everywhere report the same symptoms: Board meetings are dull. They are uninspired. They are focused on things board members neither understand nor care about, even though they know they should.

  1. Governance is a Recipe for Dysfunction

Emphasizing the busy-work over the strategic goals you wish to achieve creates a check-the-box mentality focused almost exclusively on keeping the organization out of trouble. That results in focusing the Board’s energy on a checklist of all the things that could possibly go wrong instead of all the good things and al of the potential.

So What Is The Answer?

Boards could and should be the single most powerful force for change in nonprofits and the charitable sector. I believe they can achieve this by:

  1. Focusing first and foremost on providing extraordinary community results by maintaining a laser-like focus on the goals that move towards the organization’s mission and vision.
  1. Boards, with their staff partners, need to govern towards the achievement of creating extraordinary, visionary, long term impact in their communities and the reason board members signed on in the first place
  1. Organizations must stop seeing governance as a problem-to-be-solved, and instead view governance as an opportunity to change the world.
  1. Manage risk and do that job seamlessly, without fear that they have missed something that will come back to harm them later.


Have you ever been the victim of being a Board of Directors member or supporting staff?

You have been on a Board of Directors for four meetings and you are already frustrated?

What Matters Most! 2 things you can do to stop sucking the life out of your Board of Directors

I have been blogging for over a year now, and one of the subjects that consistently receive the most readers are Boards of Directors and Board & Staff relation. I have decided to delve into this subject deeper with a 3-Part long blog format. Last week in Part 1, I wrote about the 4 things you can do to improve your board experience!


This week in Part 2 … What Matters Most & How do you stop sucking the life out of your Board of Directors

In my opinion Boards of Directors are the same as any other team within your organization and to turn any team into a high-performing one we must focus people on:

  • What is possible, not what is mandatory;
  • The tangible steps to get there, not the roadblocks; and,
  • A realistic vision of what it will look like when we get there, not a fantasy utopia.

People joined Boards of Directors because of their passion for making a difference in their communities and to make a difference they require a simple framework by which to hold themselves accountable. I stress simplicity because the more complicated a system is, the less likely it is to be followed.

If a Board of Directors wants to aim its work at making a significant difference in its community, the organization owes it to that Board of Directors to make the job as easy as possible to do – even with all the legal and operational oversight that goes with the job. And so, there are two simple steps to develop that framework:

Step 1: Define “What Matters Most’

Step 2: Putting ‘What Matters Most’ into action

Defining What Matters Most (WMM)

Defining WMM to the organization is done through very familiar tools – vision, mission and values.


The discussions that surround the development and ongoing pursuit of the vision for a better community are critical to governing.


Through those discussions of vision, the Board of Directors’ discussions of mission – what the organization will do to bring that vision to reality – have context.


From there, discussions of the organization’s values focus on the behaviours the organization will model to the community, to walk the talk that will create the change they want to see.

Thoughtfully creating Vision, Mission and Values Statements – is a powerful reminder of what is possible and what it will take to achieve that potential.

Putting WMM Into Action

Here is where we regularly fail.

We define what is important, create powerful statements and then fail to use them to guide every decision and action taken by the Board of Directors and staff. This is a waste of time and a waste of wall space for the plaque they which are written.

Typically, Vision, Mission & Value statements are created as part of a planning process, and then promptly set aside to get to the day to day “real work”: however, this is the real work. They should become the organization’s version of the 10 Commandments, principles that guide every decision that is made, and the yardstick against which every action is measured.

Putting WMM into Action takes two forms.

1 ) Day-to-day actions aimed at WMM

2) Planning aimed at WMM

WMM Day-to-Day

When a Board of Directors are doing WMM, they should be using the Vision, Mission & Values to guide every single discussion they make: How financials are reported; How money is raised; How the staff is trained and compensated; and, How the community is engaged; etc.

Every issue the Board of Directors discusses is framed within the context of what the Board of Directors wants to accomplish for the community, and every discussion is also framed within the context of the values the organization wishes to model to the community.

If done well, we begin to see that a Board of Directors that is doing the WMM. The Board of Directors should be first and foremost, conscious of the power they have, in every decision, to change lives, to make a difference – to create the future of their community.

Board of Directors that are governing for WMM do not let circumstances decide their end goals; they deliberately and consciously overcome obstacles; to achieve the community’s highest aspirations and dreams; and, they do so with consciousness and purpose.

Planning WMM
Creating an annual plan is the only way a Board of Directors can proactively lead an organization – the only way the Board of Directors can ensure it is not always putting out fires.

When a Board of Directors is working on WMM, that annual plan should be aimed at creating significant, visionary improvement to the communities quality of life. From there, the plan will ensure the organization has everything it needs to get the job done and on the undue risk and liability that can eat away at that capacity.

In other words, the plan will provide a system by which the Board of Directors can hold itself accountable for the highest potential of governance – leading and guiding on behalf of the community’s highest aspirations. And that same plan will further provide a system by which the Board of Directors can hold itself accountable for the legal oversight and operational oversight that ensure the organization can get the job done.

Yes, all that in a single plan. If it sounds easy, that’s because it has to be. Because if it is NOT easy, Board of Directors will not do it.


When a Board is Governing for WMM, the Board of Directors is defining the difference it wants to make, the reason the organization exists, its vision for the future of the community, the work it will do to create that future (its mission), and the values the organization.

The board WMM is ensuring its Vision, Mission and Values are guiding all the Board of Director’s decisions and actions and that these statements are the context for every discussion the Board of Directors has and every vote it takes.

And finally, a Board of Directors WMM is proactively planning and monitoring that plan to ensure the organization has everything it needs.

And that is what happens when a Board of Directors is Governing for WMM.


Next week Part 3 The Natural Tensions between the Board of Directors and the Executive Director


Have you ever been the victim of being a Board of Directors member or supporting staff?

You have been on a Board of Directors for four meetings, and you are already frustrated?