Delegation to volunteers – handle with care

Delegation ‘Power

The power to delegate some part of the board’s authority or functions (other than ‘the power to delegate‘*), is one of the legitimate powers enshrined in most non-profit constitutions. Not being able to delegate ‘the power to delegate’ makes sense, as ultimate responsibility must remain with the governing board.

In small to medium-sized organisations, both the board and the ‘workforce’ may be comprised chiefly (if not solely) of volunteers, who agree to serve on committees, or to assist with member services, event support, fund-raising, and other services. For the organisation to achieve its purposes, operational activity needs to be assigned and mobilised.

“Leadership is the art of mobilising others to want to struggle for shared aspirations”

Kouzes and Posner – The Leadership Challenge

Where there are paid staff, oversight of their work will be undertaken by the CEO (however titled), with accountability back to the board by that manager. Smaller membership organisations and charities also need to effectively engage their volunteer ‘workforce’ to achieve their purposes. The schematic in the header image summarises a few of the key methods by which delegation is carried out for each of the volunteer and paid workforces.

Guidance and Monitoring Systems

The board is delegating operational work which arises from its decisions about the organisation’s direction and service model. In doing so, it is asking volunteers (and staff where they exist) to perform roles and tasks on their behalf.

Since directors are legally accountable for what is done in the name of the organisation, they need to maintain ‘systems of guidance and monitoring’ to ensure that the delegated work is done as they would wish it done. That said, not allowing a degree of autonomy to delegates (e.g. by focussing on the outcomes sought) and micro-managing every step of the process, will be counter-productive, especially where it undermines the volunteer’s ‘ownership‘ of the work involved.

Potential delegation problems

My work with a range of smaller associations and charities suggests that they often experience similar problems in delegation, including:

  • lack of clarity in defining the scope of the role or task, or the level of authority granted to the delegate
  • relinquishment of control, so that a committee or person is not accountable to the board (sometimes to the extent that they act in opposition to board expectations and policies, or become an ‘organisation within an organisation’)
  • over dependence on one or two key volunteers, who hold all knowledge about what work needs to be done and how it can be addressed most effectively
  • lack of confidence in the capacity of the volunteer workforce
  • perceived lack of willing volunteers available to do the work (role or task)
  • uneven distribution of workloads, with a few key players carrying too much, and others disengaged (or feeling disempowered)
  • poor prioritisation – perhaps an underlying cause of the previous problem
  • overly bureaucratic systems and processes, which distract from getting on with the job, and discourage future volunteer participation
  • lack of support systems calibrated to the organisation’s scale and circumstances

Much of the published guidance on effective delegation is framed around managers and staff, while resources offered to assist non-profits to engage their volunteer workforce sometimes skim over how best to handle delegation of authority. The chart below suggests some measures which may be helpful in preventing (or responding to) these kinds of problems.

Situational’ delegation

The popular delegation frameworks offered to businesses tend to assume that the board has delegated operational responsibility to a CEO, who in turn farms out roles, duties, and tasks to staff and contractors to implement the board-approved strategy and deliver the organisation’s services or products.

The Hersey-Blanchard Model is perhaps the most widely used model, promoting situational leadership which is sensitive to the developmental stage and capacity of the team member being led. In essence, this means:

  • Enthusiastic Beginners need a Directing style
  • Disillusioned Learners need a Coaching style
  • Capable but Cautious Contributors need a Supporting style and
  • Self-Reliant Achievers need a Delegating style.

Elements of this model can be adapted for use in volunteer engagement and non-profit governance. Depending on the experience and capacity of the volunteer, some customisation of a role or task may be required (e.g. level of complexity, scope, autonomy), and additional support may need to be offered. Pairing ‘novice’ or ‘beginner’ volunteers with more experienced people is one way of doing this, whilst also offering a mentoring opportunity for the more experienced member.

Volunteer engagement

The Fogg Behaviour Model augments the traditional Capability/Motivation (Skill/Will) matrix with prompts or triggers which support and enhance engagement with the task or habit which is in focus. This model can be applied to volunteer engagement as much as it can to coaching individuals to improve their lifestyle or some aspect of their performance.


The Fogg Behaviour Model may offer a mechanism for reflection on the level of authority granted to a delegate at different stages in their work. Just as employees move through the stages of novice, advanced beginner, competent, proficient to expert (the Dreyfus and Benner Models), so too can volunteers. As their capability improves, their level of autonomy (authority) can increase, perhaps allowing less frequent support and supervision by the board (or the board’s volunteer coordinator/s).

Strategy Execution by Volunteers

All organisations depend on people, processes, and technology/systems to achieve their purpose/s, and the governance role of a non-profit board requires that constraints on these resources be taken into account when prioritising the goals and targets set for the organisation’s strategy and service model.

Keeping a watchful eye on whether the next delegation granted might be a ‘last straw’ on the volunteer’s back, is both respectful of the people on whom you depend, and prudent risk management. Just another aspect of the injunction to handle volunteer engagement with care.

*This restriction applies to governance delegations and does not prevent the CEO from delegating roles and responsibilities to staff and contractors.

A future post will discuss delegation instruments.

See also:

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