Leadership in the Volunteer Community

Long standing professionals often forget for whom they work. They also tend to forget the importance of their role to...

Long standing professionals often forget for whom they work. They also tend to forget the importance of their role to nurture leadership and volunteerism. They forget the need to apologize to others, to admit they have erred.

I have been studying the structure of volunteer organizations and analyzing the leadership of their professionals’ leadership styles for a little more than forty years. I have founded a number of synagogues in Europe and the United States, worked as a congregation rabbi and finally served as the exec director of the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs (FJMC) for nearly thirty-five years. My work has been guided by the belief that if one wishes to build a community one must empower and invest in its volunteers.

This isn’t always easy and it runs counter to the way most organizations function. The majority of not-for-profit organizations when they wish to develop a community or a project choose to invest in professionals. This, is a logical means of moving forward but it often overlooks the fact that the professional staff is only one part an equation. The second part of that equation is the volunteer culture. The manner in which professionals interact with their volunteers often determines their continuity and the success of the organization they represent. The success of any not-for-profit organization is dependent upon this volunteer/professional relationship.

A large number of professionals assume that part of their position is to create and articulate a vision but the manner and the strategies that the professional employs to empower others with that vision is rarely taken into account.

In order to create a working meaningful volunteer/professional culture the professional or professionals needs to develop a plan that engages and develops volunteers. Too often this fails to occur and tensions between lay and professional leaderships develop.
I often ask newly ordained rabbis, serving in their first pulpit, to define their leadership style in a simple sentence ending with an adjective and a noun. For example, “I am a dynamic leader.” The results are usually very interesting primarily because they have never been asked to consider this question. When I am asked this question, and I usually am, my response is “I am a servant leader.”

Servant leaders help make their volunteers the best volunteers, the best leaders, they can be. Servant leaders places volunteers in the spotlight, and helps them learn how to motivate others. Servant leaders quietly create the roles models we wish to be emulated. They are the ones who help their professionals make decisions. They are the ones that learn how to lead grace after meals so they can teach others.

In order for this to occur, volunteer leaders require backups and partners and the security that they will never fail, because the professional understands that their lives, like ours, are extremely busy and very complicated. Someone will lose a job, or contract an illness, or have something happen to their family which will limit their ability to serve. At times this means that the volunteer leader might not meet some people’s expectations. They might not perform in a position the way someone else would. It might mean two steps forward one step backward. The servant leader helps leadership understand they are doing the best they can and are learning how to be more effective volunteers and possible leaders if they are properly encouraged. In the volunteer world a culture of friendship means that no one ever fails, they just might not succeed as much as they desired. The professional’s job is to create a culture of friendship and trust coupled with the recognition that everyone has different abilities.

I was recently asked by the leader of one of the great teaching institutions in America, how could I run an organization, the only one in the Conservative Movement that is growing and getting younger, with such a small staff? My answer was simple and straight forward. I empower volunteers to coordinate all of the various portfolios. I help them break down positions with tremendous responsibility into small achievable goals and tasks. I place them in positions where they can succeed and I trust them. I help them learn to share, to ask questions and to request help from others. I work hard at teaching them how to work as a team and to divorce themselves from ownership

Too often lay leaders, upon attaining high office, confuse “inauguration” with “installation”. They speak of their legacies and results. Attitudes like these creates cultures of fear and mistrust. When this occurs, organizational directions can be shifted in different directions at the whim of the president. On the other hand, a culture of friendship reflects a venue where incoming, existing and past leadership works together. They stay on course from administration to administration concentrating on previously determined goals.

In many instances the vision of the professional doesn’t always reflect the needs of the organization. This is one of the great pitfalls in the not-for-profit world. A person can be swept up in the perceived glory of becoming an international figure, a world Jew, when in actuality in order to strengthen the organization a different professional direction is needed.

Long standing professionals often forget for whom they work. They also tend to forget the importance of their role to nurture leadership and volunteerism. They forget the need to apologize to others, to admit they have erred. They forget how important it is to be a servant/leader.

Leadership in the Volunteer Community, July 15, 2014, eJP, by Charles Simon

Toward a Nonprofit Theory of Leadership and Organizational Culture

Nonprofit organizations are different from business and government. One would reasonably expect to manage and govern ...

Nonprofit organizations are different from business and government. One would reasonably expect to manage and govern them differently. However, in the absence of a general framework for nonprofit management, third sector organizations are under persistent pressure to look like something else. On the one hand, nonprofits are advised (sometimes by “venture” philanthropists) to become more entrepreneurial and business savvy, orienting their organizations more closely to market forces. At the same time, organizations are urged to make increasing the reliability and accountability of their “outcomes” their highest priority, by controlling internal processes and structuring and orienting themselves as hierarchies.

The following statements on Leadership and Organizational Culture are excerpted from Principles & Practices for Nonprofit Excellence, a 40-page document available free at MCN’s web site. These 19 Practices are designed to set out an explicitly nonprofit set of expectations for leadership from board members, managers, and volunteers, in which these organizations gain from broad participation in important discussions and decision-making.

By engaging diverse groups of people who care about the organization’s work and the people it serves, from perspectives inside and outside the organization, nonprofits are able to mobilize support, learn from peers and respond to community concerns. Nonprofit leaders have a complex task: carrying out challenging missions with limited resources and sometimes conflicting demands in the midst of constantly evolving networks of organizational and personal relationships. Open and interactive leadership practices and organizational cultures strengthen the ability of nonprofits to interpret and adapt to opportunities in this shifting environment and to make the most effective use of the ideas and resources available in their organizations, networks, and communities.


1.Nonprofit leaders should make clear the decision-making structures and processes of the organization and its governing body.
2.Nonprofit leaders should devote time and attention to analyze the changing environment and steer the organization through those changes.
3.Nonprofit leaders should actively seek to understand underlying causes of mission-related issues and use this awareness to focus organization activities.
4.Nonprofit leaders should prioritize organizational goals and negotiate external relationships to buffer against excessive control of the organization by funding sources, government regulators, or other external influences.
5.Nonprofit leaders should recognize and navigate the organization’s response to the sometimes competing interests of funders, clients, constituents, the board, the public, and volunteers.
6.Nonprofit leaders should discern a sustainable business model for the organization that takes into account the organization’s size, focus, funding sources and activities.
7.Nonprofit leaders should help the organization cope with multiple demands by focusing the organization’s attention on timely mission-relevant issues and opportunities.
8.Leaders should advocate for their organization and its mission, championing the cause in and outside of the organization.
9.Leaders should actively communicate how the organization’s activities produce the intended change in the community and inspire others to affect that change through fundraising, advocacy and programming.
10.Nonprofit leaders should ensure that sufficient time and energy is invested in the organization’s communication capacity.
11.Nonprofit leaders should continually develop the skills, knowledge and abilities of others at all levels of the organization to take on greater responsibility for carrying out the organization’s mission and engaging community members.
12.Nonprofit leaders should create and sustain an organizational culture that best advances the nonprofit’s mission and goals.
13.Nonprofit leaders should push the organization to make difficult and timely decisions, challenge others in the organization when necessary, and permit conflicting views to be expressed on the way to reaching resolution.
14.Nonprofit leaders should foster a culture of information sharing and interaction between the board and others in the organization so that innovation and creativity can come from diverse parts of the organization.
15.Nonprofit leaders should identify and implement opportunities that enhance a positive working environment.
16.Nonprofit leaders should demonstrate the behaviors they expect of their colleagues.
17.Nonprofit leaders should encourage their organization’s staff and board to seek out, recognize and leverage the shared and different values of diverse cultures.
18.Nonprofit leaders should pay attention to and attend to their need for professional and personal renewal and encourage the same in others.
19.Nonprofit leaders should allow for and encourage questions and reflections on the organization’s strategies, effectiveness and ability to change.

Toward a Nonprofit Theory of Leadership and Organizational Culture, July 28, 2014, Nonprofit Quarterly, by The Minnesota Council of Nonprofits

Virtual Strength: How the Internet Fosters Community

People are more mobile than ever; communities and jobs are more fluid, and relationships are taking on new shapes. Wh...

People are more mobile than ever; communities and jobs are more fluid, and relationships are taking on new shapes. While we are more globally connected, we are feeling ever more alienated and desperate for rootedness, connection, and community. For those of us in the expanding Zeitgeist of virtual communities, a number of questions require consideration

  • How do people retain both their deep connections and the casual ones that enable the migration of ideas?
  • How do virtual communities affect our humanity and relationships?
  • Is commitment to physical place important?
  • What do we gain and what do we lose through so much mobility?

I’ve spent most of the past fourteen years living in Israel and working for American educational institutions. At both Camp Ramah in Wisconsin (as founding co-director of its Northwoods Kollel) and at Mechon Hadar (as director of alumni affairs and recruitment), the essence of my position was intellectually and pastorally oriented community organizing. With the emergence of the Internet as the culture’s central information medium and hub for social organization, I found myself operating on new terrain – working in many places and nowhere. Yeshivat Hadar, for example, may be housed in New York, but the community it serves and represents – Jews interested in rigorous, literate, communal Torah life in egalitarian contexts – spans a far greater distance. While that might foster a network of kindred spirits, does it create community?

Spoiler alert: yes and no. We have an opportunity and challenge today to maximize the ways in which virtual organizations enhance community life while doing some serious, creative, adaptive thinking about how to nurture physical, local communities without smothering mobility.

In some ways, the kinds of fellowship and intimacy forged and nurtured virtually tend to be richer than those found exclusively in face-to-face contexts. And virtual communities are more democratic and inclusive and, consequently, more substantive.

Conversations in threads and wall posts on Facebook and other social media circulate information and perspectives more efficiently and inclusively than messaging that takes place solely on the ground. There are several structural reasons for this:

  • We can maintain the feel of a conversation’s urgency in real time and yet we can respond slowly — with more time to think and digest before speaking;
  • We can eliminate barriers that preclude shy people from sharing their insights;
  • We can include individuals who are socially isolated because of geography, economics, homebound caretaking responsibilities (e.g., parents of young children), or restrictions on their freedom of movement by others;
  • We can limit or block the voices of aggressive interlocutors who too easily dominate social settings in person.

Moreover, virtual communities sustain relationships when they need to grow the most but are at most risk of dissolving – when individuals move away and discover new insights ready to circulate and prevent communities from becoming intellectual silos. Take a biblical example: When they first meet, Moshe and Yitro are drawn together as strangers and kindred spirits. But only later, when they reunite and see one another, could Yitro learn of God’s ways with Israel and Moshe learn about Yitro’s community organization wisdom. The reuniting was essential to community growth, but difficult to achieve; too often, by the time it happens, if ever, people have lost the social rhythms needed to unlock and share their new knowledge. Today, many of our face-to-face relationships are immeasurably enhanced because connections that enable getting back together are better maintained while we are apart.

Virtual communities also enable the retention of our more creative members. During my tenure at Camp Ramah, I would encourage our brightest counselors not to return every summer. I felt it would raise the camp’s creative bar when veterans would eventually return with new perspectives gleaned from a broader array of experiences. This was usually met with resistance: “Once they’re gone, how will we get them back?” High net, low roof. Maybe they were right at that time. Today, though, an organization that loses contact with its members that quickly is simply not trying.

When the community is mindfully organized, it will have even more substantive and creative interactions during opportunities to meet face-to-face. Most of the catching up has already happened. “What have you been up to these five years?” can give way to: “I wanted to talk to you more about that post the other day.” Goodbye, reunions; hello, laboratories. Social media enable human relationships to be thicker, wiser, and more stable.

On the other hand, the malaise that many digitized people feel is real, and I suspect that it strikes the hardest when a virtual community is replacing, rather than supplementing a physical community of stable, face-to-face relationships. Intimacy is often accessible only when built on a foundation of interaction.

Further, geographically dispersed but like-minded individuals talking to one another can also become an echo chamber, deaf to the insights of those of different ages, politics, and lifestyles, and blind to the nuances of received wisdom and local custom. Our celebration of diversity doesn’t look so impressive if we forget how to listen to all the grandparents in our midst.

It is no surprise that the remarkable burst of Jewish innovation in the past fifteen years coincided with the emergence of a digitized generation or that the innovation took a quantum leap forward when social media became the norm. This decade’s big story will be the attempt of that generation to put down roots and establish a stable infrastructure without losing the creative soul of their flexible and mobile origins.

Rootedness in physical space is important, often crucially so: People crave the mutual understanding and dependability that come through long-term relationships. Truly buoyant physical communities today, though, will be those that recognize the ways in which digital community organization reinforces their natural strengths so they can be more democratic and inclusive and better retain their members. Accordingly, those who have discovered the humanity remarkably enabled via social media will go deepest with these relationships when they set down roots and commit to physical community.

Virtual Strength: How the Internet Fosters Community, July 22, 2014, eJP by Aryeh Bernstein