Why Volunteers, Executive Directors, and Nonprofit Boards All Start in the Same Place

Pamala Hawley December 14, 2016 Nonprofits

We’re happy to welcome guest author Pamela Hawley, CEO and Founder of UniversalGiving. In this post, Hawley describes how a volunteer experience illustrates how nonprofit Executive Directors (EDs) and nonprofit boards can effectively work together.

An article from Bridgestar titled “Starting Off on the Right Foot: How to Establish a Good ED-Board Relationship” explores what Executive Directors can do to lay the foundations for a solid relationship with board members. This started me thinking: A great relationship between an ED and the Board actually starts with the same premise as volunteering.

It comes down to one quality.


Everyone needs to listen.

Everyone wants to be heard.

Often I am asked by a volunteer before they go on a trip, “How do I need to be prepared?”

And the first thing I say is to be a good listener.


Build Together

In my first volunteer trip to Managua, Nicaragua, we were scheduled to build schools and dormitories. At that time, 90% of students in the community were not currently attending school. We jumped into the project with the villagers and finished the school — but ran out of materials for the dormitories. First instincts as Americans were to brainstorm every possible way to get it done. But access to resources was severely limited. As our Nicaraguan leader stated: “You Americans just want to complete things. We want to create and nourish relationships.”

Quote with girls washing hands in the background.As we let these words sink in, we truly began to connect and listen to this community. We learned about their life. We built relationships, played with their children, helped cook hundreds of tortillas over hot grills for hundreds of people in the community. We embraced their daily life, and the more we did, the closer the bonds of understanding and joy grew.

It is wonderful to go to another country, complete a volunteer project, and feel that you really had an impact. But establishing a relationship with the local people is by far the most important aspect of the volunteer trip. Building true, lasting relationships results in the greatest benefit for our world: fewer barriers are formed and increased understanding is achieved. We are all a team working together to face and resolve the challenges in our world.


How Nonprofits are Exactly the Same

It’s the same principle here. The Executive Director needs to listen and learn from the team, from the board, the interns, the funders, the accountants, everyone. It’s an important time to understand how processes work, how operations occur, how different personalities and teams function, and how the values live throughout the organization.

Equally, the board can listen and learn from the Executive Director. First, the ED must demonstrate the humility to honor current processes, and understand them thoroughly. Then, there should be an openness to new ideas, efficiencies, styles, and communications, if they help the goals of the organization.

Listening… allows everyone to feel heard. To be honored. It’s the cement building blocks of any good home, and, any good relationship. From there, innovation can spring forth and thrive.

Whoever you are, whatever state you are in, listening is a great balm to establish and maintain an effective relationship. May listening help all of us in our day-to-days… I am constantly reminding myself, too!


Read more articles by Universal Giving at their blog Philanthropost.