Editors’ note: This article, first published in print during June-1989, has been republished for Nonprofit Quarterly with minor updates.

The following is a letter we received a while ago. Because we have received many like it, we decided to answer it with this article.

Dear Friends,

I serve on two boards, a shelter for homeless people and a community organizing project focused on public housing. I know my fiscal, moral and legal responsibilities. I raise money from my friends, even though I don’t like it, and I give a total of 7% of my gross income to these two projects.

At the risk of sounding immodest, I feel I can say I am a good board member. In addition to my work for these groups and my full-time job, I am a single mother of two children, ages ten and eight.

Recently, I have begun to feel that these groups take my work for granted. They know they can rely on me so they give me a lot of tasks. One is barely finished before they are calling with another. I know the work needs to be done, and most of the board members for each organization work hard, but we can’t keep up this pace. My question is this: How many things does a good board member do in an average month? Anything else you could say about this would be most appreciated.

I am leaving off the writer’s name and city because she would be flooded with people wanting her on their board. This is the kind of board member we want to protect. She is reliable, responsible, and takes pride in doing a good job. She does not seem to seek glory or praise for her work, but she does not like to be taken for granted.

Rather than asking how many things she should do to be a good board member, our dedicated volunteer needs to ask a different question, with the following in mind. Paid staff get paid for working a certain number of hours a week: if full-time, usually 35 to 40 hours. While paid staff often put in many more than their paid hours, there is nevertheless an understanding of the amount of time they should work. While failure to perform certain tasks can cost a staff person their job, their wages are measured by time, not task.

For volunteers, there is no such time boundary. There are no labor laws about volunteers, no parameters, no sense that this much time is right and beyond this is too much. In addition, volunteers have varying amounts of time to put in. Some can spend full time as volunteers; others, like our advice-seeker, do their volunteer work in the context of another job and family commitments. Some people are able to do some of their volunteer work on their paid work time. For others, this is problematic or even forbidden. People who volunteer for only one organization may have more time for that group than people who divide their volunteer time among two or more groups.

To be fair to volunteers (which includes board members, and may include others), every organization should determine a number of hours per month that being on their board requires. It is true that one person’s hour is another person’s day in terms of productivity, but this is as true of paid staff as of volunteers, yet paid staff are paid for a prescribed amount of time.

How Much Time?

A week contains 168 hours. Of these, people generally spend 50 to 60 hours sleeping, and another 35 to 40 washing, dressing, and eating, including buying and fixing food and cleaning up, doing laundry, paying bills and so on. For those who also work full time, there are approximately 18 hours left in a week for socializing, maintaining friendships and relationships, exercising, spending time with children, and getting around, to say nothing of those of us who need a few moments a day to relax and unwind.

The Independent Sector once sponsored a program called “Daring Goals for A Caring Society.” They suggested that people give five hours a week and 5% of their gross income to charity. With studies showing that Americans were watching television an average of 5 to 8 hours a day, they suggested people take the equivalent of one day of television time and use it to volunteer.

However, many people get dressed, iron their clothes, shine their shoes, sew on buttons, pay bills and do other household tasks with the TV on. According to one recent report, fifty percent of Americans watch TV while eating. Thus, the time reported “watching TV” is misleading. These people do not have 5 to 8 hours a day free to put in elsewhere. Further, many of the people volunteering in small grassroots organizations are like our correspondent—working, volunteering for more than one group, and quite possibly rarely watching TV.

The question for organizations setting expectations for volunteers is how many of a person’s “free” hours the organization has the right to expect to be devoted to the organization. To function effectively, a board will need its members to work about eight hours a month on board commitments. Some months board-related work will require more time than others, especially if a special event is being planned or a board retreat is being held. Other months may require no time at all.

For good board members, like our inquirer, having an expected time commitment is critical. She can know that she has fulfilled her responsibilities and done her share of the work when she has put in the time, not when she has tried to complete every task. Because there is always more that can be done, a dedicated person heads rapidly for burnout if their measure of success is to complete the work. Formal time limits impose boundaries that will protect good board members.

Asking for eight hours a month of a person’s free time is a reasonable request, but given how busy people are, staff and board alike must be careful to use people’s time efficiently. An organization with 10 board members, each of whom gives the equivalent of one day a month, has essentially another half-time staff person: ten person-days to fill usefully.

Asking for More

Some final advice based on the good board member’s letter: Don’t reward a task well done with yet another task. Be sure to thank the person for what she or he did and be aware of whether you are asking for more time than the person has committed to. If you do need to ask that person’s help with another task, acknowledge their work by saying, for example, “I know you have done your share. Would you be willing to take on this extra assignment?” Be clear that most of your board members are working hard and doing their best. What their best turns out to be is a function of training, thoughtfulness and good time management.

The line between board and staff is mushy in small organizations, where board members often do work that a paid person would do in a larger organization. That mushiness—there are no rigid job descriptions and no strict protocol—can spawn creativity and a valuable sense of being a team. However, without adequate recognition of people’s time and tolerance, the mushiness can disintegrate into incoherence and resentment.

With clear and measurable expectations of board members and close attention to the use of time by everyone, both staff and board can feel that the job is getting done and that they will want to stick around for the long haul.

Kim Klein is co-publisher of the Grassroots Fundraising Journal.

June, 1989
Volume 8, Article 3, #1