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That Space Between: Navigating the Transition Between Volunteer-Run and Staff-Run Organizations

Alternating black and white lines drawn in a spiral shape.
Image Description: Alternating black and white lines drawn in a spiral shape.

There it was. The breaking point. Midway through a board-staff priority-setting session, the Executive Director couldn’t hold back any longer. “The Board doesn’t even let me move a table!” She went on to describe a lengthy series of conversations with three different board members who felt strongly that a certain piece of furniture should be in a certain location in the office. The Executive Director’s outburst was met with a predictable defensiveness, an interplay of hurt feelings and confusion: “But we were just trying to help!”

Volunteers “just trying to help” have done amazing things. Communities of color are incredibly resilient, and draw upon the natural strengths of a close-knit group, building deep trusting relationships to accomplish miracles, often entirely upon the backs of volunteers who devote endless hours to the organization. Without a single paid staff member, Seattle communities of color have come together to hold huge events, fundraise for their home countries, and even broker local and state relationships to buy buildings. I will never cease to be amazed by the power built by communities coming together.

However, there is a breaking point. If they continue to grow, at some point volunteer-run organizations hit the limit of their capacity. Some choose to stay in that sweet spot, focusing their energies on very specific programs or events, and flourish as an entirely volunteer-run organization. Other organizations choose to take a huge step by hiring their first-ever staff member. This often causes significant sticker shock as the budget size increases dramatically. But beyond the practicalities involved with suddenly needing to meet payroll and follow a raft of HR laws, many organizations don’t realize what a dramatic transition hiring staff entails.

Which means that many organizations quickly get bogged up in That Space Between. (Which sounds like an episode of the Twilight Zone, and actually is just as scary.) That Space Between volunteer-run and staff-run, where roles are unclear and frustration abounds. That Space Between one organizational form and another, two very different creatures with their own cultures, habits, and behaviors.

I know organizations that are still caught in That Space Between years and years after they first began hiring staff, and find themselves embroiled in the same painful issues, often naming the symptoms but rarely facing up to the true cause: failing to embrace the full transition from one organizational structure to another. In other words, getting caught in That Space Between.

Do I sense a sudden quickening of your heart? A bit of tension in your shoulders as you consider whether you’re involved in an organization stuck in That Space? Here’s some clear warning signs that you are:

  • The Board is making day-to-day decisions regarding organizational operations. When you start out as a volunteer-run organization, your founders often continue to serve on the board, and model behavior that other board members copy: the belief that they are in charge of every aspect of the organization, and thus get to make all the decisions, big and small. Ask yourself: Who is choosing how to spend the money budgeted for a program? Who is making the hiring decisions for other staff and consultants?
  • There is no paid Executive Director, or the paid Executive Director is being treated like an executive assistant. When you’ve been making all the decisions, you want to keep making those decisions, and paid staff seem like a great way to take the administrative burden off of yourself while you still get to see your dream come true. So boards naturally tend to start out hiring an administrative assistant or a facilities manager in order to maintain control over the organization.
  • The staff members feel frustrated and powerless. A natural result of the board making all the decisions is that the staff don’t get to make any – and half the time when they do, the board has no problem overturning their decisions. How does it feel to spend all day working hard for a mission you love while having no control over the direction your work is going and how you spend your time?
  • The board members feel frustrated and stretched too thin. Since the organization has grown significantly, there’s more happening at once. More important and unimportant decisions to be made. More relationships to broker with funders, community members, and partner organizations. Either everyone on the board is stretched in different directions, all trying to manage overlapping pieces of this, or a subset of the board (like the Executive Committee) is trying to hold all of it – and finding it impossible to do that as volunteers with many other responsibilities on their plates. How does it feel to spend every free moment working hard for a mission you love and never feeling like you’re getting to where you need to go?
  • Sure, these are issues. But every organization has issues, right? Why is this such a problem?

This approach reinforces the same oppressive systems that hurt our communities of color every day.

  • It’s paternalistic. Well-meaning, experienced board members play out the same patterns of behavior we see in privileged philanthropists: they are certain they have all the answers, and ignore the lived experience of the very communities they are trying to serve. An organization’s paid staff are the people who are on the ground every day, doing the work of the organization, devoting their very livelihood to the mission of the organization. By taking away staff power to decide how that work gets done, and assuming they know better, boards reinforce patterns of oppressive paternalism.
  • It’s inequitable. Volunteers are working for no money, and are resistant to paying staff any money at all, assuming that the staff should be happy to get anything that’s given to them because they are so fortunate to be serving the organization’s mission. That is inhumane. Paying staff less than a living wage ensures that they are stuck in the cycle of poverty. Not giving staff healthcare and other benefits leaves them at the mercy of a broken system. And yet that is what we do, particularly when organizations are stuck in That Space Between and hesitant to fundraise and plan for a healthy budget to pay their staff well. Since staff lack the power to change this, it reinforces the very cycles the nonprofit sector is built to fight against.
  • It’s ageist, sexist, racist, etc – take your pick. Take a close look at who is on the board and who is on the staff. These community-based organizations of color often have boards that deeply reflect the community they serve, which is awesome. But power dynamics can still play out painfully between the staff and board, showing up differently in each organization. Particularly in identity-based organizations serving specific communities of color, a common dynamic is to have elders on the board, while the staff are predominantly young and early-career. It is crucial for communities of color to draw upon the wisdom of their elders. But it is also crucial for communities of color to embrace people coming from many different backgrounds, including the youth who will be the next generation to ensure the continuity of the organization’s mission and culture. All too often we see painful dynamics playing out between elders and youth within a certain community, despite the fact that they are united in values and in their desire to serve their community. Another common dynamic is that the organization will employ recent immigrants with limited job prospects, and the same power dynamics that we see playing out nationally occur in these organizations, as individual desperation just to have a job can allow them to continue to put up with poisonous work environments. And yet another dynamic is that nonprofit staff tend to be female, while boards are often male-dominated. These underlying tensions can play out in terrible ways, as different factions war against each other for power and control, pulling everyone into the wrong conversations.
  • It reinforces a lack of individual responsibility for decisions. Often, decision-making is extremely muddy, and boards and staff spend months obsessing over the smallest decision. In the end, even if no one is happy with the decision that gets made, it’s been run through so many different committees and board meetings that folks tend to shrug and just look the other way when a decision is made that has negative repercussions on the community. Staff members in particular tend to have two choices: hold themselves personally responsible to the community they serve and constantly feel frustrated about not being able to make the changes necessary to better serve their communities, or disengage and stop feeling ownership over the work they are doing and its impact, which can lead to dangerous consequences on the ground.

While there are always exceptions to the rule, I’ve witnessed a concerning trend amongst different community-based organizations of color, who experience the same pains and challenges despite how different their work is. While the presenting problem is finances, staff turnover, or poor programs, the deeper problem is that they are stuck in That Space Between, which creates cascading issues that can feel overwhelming to even begin to tackle. It’s no surprise that many organizations limp along for years without moving beyond this stage, given how many messy, painful issues are interwoven in organizations stuck in That Space.

If you’re starting to have a creeping suspicion that your organization might be stuck in That Space Between, fear not – while it’s hard, it is quite possible to get out of the mire. The process will look different for each organization, but here are some key components:

  • Decide whether you want to be volunteer-led or staff-led. Either structure is powerful. It depends on your mission and the scope of work you hope to accomplish. Consider the direction you want the organization to go, and the size you want to it to be. These are critical variables affecting which structure will be the best fit for your organization.
  • Bring in folks from the outside. No matter what direction you take, it makes a big difference to bring in folks who are outside the bubble of your organization, who bring fresh perspectives and can name the things that nobody wants to talk about. Sometimes a talented facilitator or a nonprofit leader of a similar organization can make all the difference in pushing your staff and board to face some hard truths and make the challenging decisions necessary to move out of That Space.

If you do choose to grow and feel that having paid staff is crucial success to your organization, then:

  • Put paid staff in charge of the organization. Yes, the board should set the strategic direction of the organization, approve the annual budget, and hold the staff accountable to the mission of the organization. But the board should not be making day-to-day decisions about how the organization is being run. They need to trust the staff leadership (which could be an Executive Director or an alternative staff co-leadership structure) to make the hard decisions each day that keep the organization running smoothly, as it is the staff leadership’s job to be steeped in the work of the organization, and seek out advice and resources from others (including the wisdom of board members!) to make the best possible decisions. But until the board lets go of a great deal of its power, the organization will definitely be stuck in That Space Between. This is the most important thing, and this can be the hardest thing. It requires a shift in organizational culture, a shift in behavior, and a shift in attitude. And a significant increase in funding. (Which is a whole different huge issue we’ll be writing about, so I’ll keep it brief by tossing in a plug for Multi-Year General Operating Dollars.)
  • Teach the board what it means to focus on high-level governance and strategy. On the board, you have ultimate fiduciary responsibility and make key strategic decisions. But often, boards stuck in That Space Between have their hands in everything and anything. Moving away from that working board approach requires revisiting the role of the board, and what the board should focus on. The board has to let go of power, and allow the staff to hold far more power than they have in the past. How can you ensure the board is lightweight, adding a key lens on strategy without getting overly involved in the day to day? Does the board hold itself accountable to the mission and values of the organization? How often does the board meet, and why? BoardSource has great materials on the role of the board that you can use to help the board navigate this transition. (Hey BoardSource, please make a version with a white background to save us all mounds of printer ink?)
  • Ensure volunteers feel appreciated but understand the limitations of their role. Volunteer power is amazing, and continues to be very important after you have paid staff. However, as a volunteer, you report to the staff. You defer to them and cannot override their decisions. In particular, board members who continue to volunteer heavily for the organization have to deeply understand that when they volunteer, they are wearing a different hat than their board hat, and they do not retain the power they have as a board member.
  • Teach the staff what it means to take responsibility for running the organization. Everyone contributes to the problem. Often, staff reinforce the board’s beliefs that they need to make all the decisions because the staff are young or inexperienced, and don’t have the technical expertise or lived experience to make the best possible decisions. This is understandable, but not insurmountable. Invest in your staff’s professional development. Ensure they are getting strong supervision and mentorship so that they are receiving support in making difficult decisions. Budget for access to specialized technical resources that will help the organization navigate complex areas like financial management and fund development.
  • Some people are going to have to leave. With every organizational transition, some people can weather the painful changes and shift their behaviors. Others cannot. This is normal. By naming that early, you can find graceful ways to say goodbye to people who don’t want to let go of power (or take on responsibility) so that you continue to honor the wisdom and passion they bring to your mission. Remember that you all care deeply about the same mission. Remember that you all are human. Treat each other with compassion and remember how hard it is for people to change.

I’d love to snap my fingers and save us all from the horrors of That Space Between. But it’s not that easy. It’s human habit to slip back into old ways of being. Making this dramatic shift is strenuous. But not making it is far worse. The challenges facing communities of color are far too urgent for us to be wasting our time arguing over where to put that table. We need to access our communities’ wisdom – and in order to have the space to focus on the important things, we need to trust others to do their work well, and support them to run the organization effectively. No matter who is in charge, building deep relationships and strong partnerships is crucial to effecting systems change. We need to be mindful that we are not reinforcing behaviors that actually disempower people in the very ways that we are fighting against. We need each other if we are going to be successful in overturning the various flavors of institutional oppression that we all face as communities of color. We must hold ourselves accountable to developing organizational structures that bring out the best in people – not the worst.

RVC is continuously learning about the best strategies to strengthen community-based organizations of color, and is interested in your insights into this particular challenge. Many small nonprofits of all different flavors experience similar issues when they are in That Space Between. We would love to hear from you: Does this resonate? Do you know of any organization experiencing this right now? What strategies have been successful in building bridges while distinguishing roles and accountability? What did we miss?

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7 Comments

  1. This was a very good article. It will be very helpful to our not for profit organization that was very successful before we hired our first executive director if we are willing to accept some of the suggestions.

    Thanks for sharing.

    Mary Dollison

  2. Holy moly. I think my org may have been stuck since 1989 when it first hired staff who were more than strictly secretarial or strictly technical (for a single specific program). I am relatively new to the org. and it is my 1st time as an ED. Though I have experience w Bds and nonprofits and am fascinated by how they function (or don’t!). I have been trying & trying to figure out why they have essentially lost an ED on avg every 2.5 years. I had finally honed in on governance v mgmt as the current issue. But w only 2 elders on a board of 10 I didn’t realize until just now that this has been ongoing, I suspect, the entire time. I literally had that experience you describe at the beginning when I rearranged our conference table the night before a Bd meeting and they moved it back before I came in the room for the meeting that next morning! Ha! It truly is cultural and systemic in the org, with a range of reinforcing mechanisms sprinkled throughout. I think none of the Bd is or possibly ever has been aware that there even is a distinction btw the gov & mgmt as few Bd members have had experience on Bds and mostly been chosen bc of interest in or knowledge of our particular sector. None of the previous ED’s had any experience with Bds & v. little w mgmt…again, had good technical skills and/or knowledge for our sector but not for organizations or mgmt. And I suspect none stayed long enough to identify the issue that was doubtless driving them crazy – let alone attempt to address it. What I am wondering now is not just how on earth to change it but how do you even start a true convo w/o backlash…I have started making small moves or comments to guide or nudge but… hoo boy. It’s a v delicate & sensitive issue. Bd mbsr are either unaware of the extent of the staff turnover as they are relatively new to the org themselves or view it as one long string of unique and unrelated events and not a pattern and certainly not one the Bd has any control over. Thank you so much for this article. It has really crystallized my thinking. Much, much gratitude

  3. I am so glad it’s useful for you! It’s hard to be stuck in that cycle. If at all possible, find an external board development consultant to come in and do a board training. When I run board trainings, I have the board learn about this and then do a quiz on different responsibilities and what bucket they fall into, and then do a self-assessment on how well they are doing different governance responsibilities. It helps to have a consultant be the one telling the board what they are doing wrong, instead of it being you as ED. Sadly, they’ll likely hear it better from an outsider.

  4. I am on a board of a non-profit all volunteer homeless transitional shelter program. Does anyone have insights and resources on how we scale up and transition to a paid staff? Our budget and staffing is at our limits but the demand for more residents increases.

  5. Unfortunately, that’s a huge challenge, and all too common in the nonprofit sector. I would encourage you to reach out to your local network of homelessness service providers for advice on effective fundraising strategies, as the best approach is very dependent on your local environment. Also, if you have a local/community foundation focused on your geographic area, going to them for advice and partnership could be helpful. I’m sorry-there is no easy answer.

  6. Good Day, Please let me know if you or someone you know has info related to this: I am working for a non profit 50+ center in rual northern ontario canada, and applying for a grant.
    They have never had a paid position, all volunteer run until now. I have a small grant to work as a part time program coordinator for the next few months. I am applying for a time sensitive grant to get funding for a full time positon, Program Coordinator, and the grant requires evidence it will help, from a like situation.
    So, i am looking for & would SO appreciate anyone who was/is involved with any organization that went from all volunteer, to having any sort of paid position, funded in any way, to explain this and how it benefited the organization.
    Please dont hesitate to contact me if you think you might be of help to our plight.
    And i do truly thank you kindly for your time. [email protected]

  7. Thanks for commenting! Unfortunately, no particular resources come to mind, but perhaps there are thought leaders in Canada who agree with this, and might add some more weight to your argument? Particularly funders, even ones who don’t fund your area but agree with the sentiment… Maybe the Vancouver Foundation?

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