How Long is Too Long for a Volunteer Leader to Serve?

Universities, colleges, small and large nonprofits all need to utilize volunteers to accomplish programmatic, governance and fundraising goals. Presidents, CEOs and Development Officers spend a lot of time recruiting volunteer leadership, training volunteers, communicating with volunteers and acknowledging volunteers. I dare pose the question “Are your volunteers happy?” and “Are organizations happy with their volunteers?”

Keeping volunteer leaders happy means recruiting volunteers correctly, orienting them correctly and then giving a volunteer the guidance, encouragement and accolades they deserve. Volunteers typically do not want be part of a rubber stamping board but rather an innovative board taking part in meaty discussions about the organization now and where it’s headed through strategic planning and implementation. Organizations are happy with their volunteer leadership if they are showing up for Board and committee meetings, are actively engaged, carrying out their roles and responsibilities, opening up donation doors and making a personal donation. Board members who micromanage staff and do not fulfill their volunteer obligations make for an unhappy organization.

Most nonprofits or institutions have bylaws indicating board terms as well as job descriptions for Board members and Board officers. Many nonprofits ignore the length of time a Board member serves. How long is too long? Is 12 years on a board too long? Is 7 years too long? The answer is yes to both lengths of time. As a volunteer, one should be willing to step aside, continue to be involved with the organization in other ways and continue to be a donor AND let new blood energize the growing and evolving nonprofit. Organizations all have different volunteer leadership needs and it is never advantageous to hold on to a board member for more than six years which would consist of two three year terms. Succession planning should be in place and followed so that officers of the Executive Board can be groomed to one day succeed the Board Chair.

A Board Member job description should list fundraising for the organization as a responsibility. Along with being fiscally responsible, the Board should be making a personal gift annually at least to ensure 100% participation to satisfy grant application requests. The ever controversial “give or get” clause in a job description is a good idea, even if it’s $500. Nonprofits ask “What if our board is comprised of those less fortunate per our Bylaws?” That’s why it’s called a give OR GET. If a board member can’t write a check, they can ask others for donations to meet the goal set in the board member job description.

A Board Member orientation should occur before the new member’s first board meeting. The orientation should last about an hour and can be run by the President or Executive Director and the Board Chair or Vice Chair. The new board member will be on a steep learning curve so cover the basics, provide a binder or folder for reference and for all future meetings, make sure you provide a sample elevator speech and let the board member meet the mission if at all possible i.e. tour the campus, visit the shelter, afterschool program or a patient.

As we come to the end of 2014, I encourage you to acknowledge your Board members and volunteer leaders, schedule your annual Board orientation for new members and current members, create a succession plan if one is not already in place, plan your annual or biannual Board retreat, check in on your strategic plan and help your Board Chair prepare letters thanking board members whose terms of service have ended.

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