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When the founding Chair burns out

I’ve been the Chair of a small organisation since I founded it five years ago. There are no staff and all of the work is done by six trustees and three volunteers. The trustees, including myself, have full-time jobs.
I started the organisation for personal reasons – I realised there was no support in our rural area for parents like me. I now feel that we need to take stock of the organisation and how it’s run but this is creating anxieties amongst the other trustees (who also work very hard) and the people in the community who benefit from all the organisation’s good work.
I am regularly called on to work between meetings, during the evenings and at weekends. I am expected to be the figurehead, the leading strategist, the legal expert, the administrator and the handyman when things go wrong. We’re a very small organisation so I do understand why this happens but I sometimes feel that the daily fire-fighting that is expected of me makes me less effective in the long run. We recently lost out on some funding because I didn’t complete the application form properly. I couldn’t find some important information and there was no time to look for it.
This came to a head a few months ago when I was telephoned at 11.30 pm by one of the other trustees. They had just bumped into one of the volunteers who had said they weren’t going to volunteer with us anymore because they felt they were being over-used and under-valued.
With only three volunteers we do rely on them quite heavily and there have been times when I’ve felt we should have done things differently. We don’t have a volunteer policy for example and in hindsight I think we have put too much pressure on them to behave like employees.
I’ve not been happy with this arrangement  myself for a while now but I just don’t have any more personal time to give the organisation. I don’t understand how I can be both immediate and hands-on and strategic and long-term and I feel quite isolated.  I am deeply committed to the organisation and want it to thrive.
Do you have any suggestions?
Ade Sawyerr answers
As organisations group grow and start delivering services, planning becomes important and formal policies and procedures need to be put in place to ensure that the organisations function successfully with a minimum of disruption.
There are several challenges that face the board.  Some of these include:

  • The need for the organisation to move beyond a power culture where the original founder is still the driving force in developing strategy and providing services to clients
  • The process of making and implementing decisions and the role of the other trustees
  • Issues of governance, leadership, motivation and the festering of conflicts
  • Planning the work programme and development of formal policies in the organisation including a volunteer charter and induction package
  • Dissemination of information and the development of an effective communication system

To address this situation, I will recommend an away day strategy meeting that will enable all in the organisation to meet and discuss issues of the long term of the organisation.
An experienced facilitator could assist in developing an agenda for the day that would include:

  • Clarification of objectives
  • Development of a strategic framework
  • Structuring of board
  • Governance, membership, services, policies, quality issues
  • Funders

The away day will allow the volunteers, trustees and chair to have discussions about the future of the organisation in a structured atmosphere where all can contribute their suggestions and raise their concerns in an open and frank forum.
The result will be the clarification of roles and responsibilities and the restructuring of the board so that responsibilities are evenly spread across trustees.  Four committees are suggested with responsibility for the functional areas of management:

  • Finance and fundraising
  • Personnel and administration
  • Marketing and publicity
  • Operations and service delivery, quality and performance monitoring

The away day will also help to clarify the work programme that the organisation will be able to undertake in the future and assign responsibilities to the different aspects of the work.  The role of the chair will also be clarified at the away day.
The chairs responsibility will be as a manager assisting the volunteers and receiving and providing feedback on how their work programme is being delivered.  The chair should also provide support to the trustees in helping them to contribute to the decision making process of the organisation as well as grooming them to the chairs role in the future.  This may mean an audit of their skills and some delegation of responsibilities.
The notes from the away day could form the basis of an outline business plan that could be used to help raise funding for the organisation to employ a full or part-time paid coordinator since it is evident that the volunteers and the trustees are overworked and the service they provide is heavily demanded by the users.
A recruitment drive for new volunteers and trustees will help the organisation renew itself; but what is important is that a volunteers’ charter and a trustees’ job description be developed.  New trustees to the organisation should be taken through a process of induction that may involve their being provided with an induction pack that will contain the policies and procedures in the organisation.
Finally, an annual general meeting should be called with assistance from the local voluntary service council where a review of the work of the organisation will be presented to the membership.
Ade Sawyerr is a partner of Equinox Consulting, a management consultancy that provides consultancy, training, and research and focuses on the management support needs of the voluntary sector.  He recently led the training programme for the pilot project on the support needs of chairs of small organisation implemented by NCVO.  Please send your questions to him at
From The Board Answer Book NCVO 2004 ISBN:0 7199 1633X

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