If You Need a Volunteer, Recruit a Volunteer

If you need a board member, recruit a board member.


by Dan Busby and John Pearson


If you chase two rabbits . . . you will not catch either one.[1]

Russian Proverb

It was Saturday morning of the overnight board retreat at a Minnesota camp and time for a coffee break. I was feeling pretty good. The PowerPoint worked. The executive director had inspired the full board to attend, and they were friendly to this out-of-state leader.

Energized with caffeine, we resumed the board enrichment sessions until I noticed an empty chair. I paused, “Should we wait for Hank?”     

Silence. Then muffled chuckles filled the room. So I asked, “What’s so funny?”    

No one offered to snitch on Hank, so I resumed my driver-mode, too-much-content road show until a noisy power saw in the next building interrupted my monologue.   

More laughter. Not muffled.    

“Here’s the deal,” I demanded with a phony sternness. “Either you tell me what’s so funny, or I’m packing up the PowerPoint!”   

Finally, the board chair intervened. “So sorry! Really, we do appreciate all of this board stuff. But Hank is our buildings and grounds committee chair, and it’s his job to get that cabin remodeled before summer. He told me he’d prefer completing his construction work today rather than wasting his time—I mean, investing his time in this board training session. I’m sure you understand.”    

Yikes! That was a punch in the gut. But fortunately, before that emotion spilled out my mouth, the Lord gave me a gentle nudge that was paradigm changing. In that moment in Minnesota, I had a profound epiphany.   

These God-honoring men and women had recruited Hank onto the camp board and the buildings and grounds committee with righteous motives, but for all the wrong reasons. Sure, he owned a power saw and his own construction company, but for Hank, sitting in a boring board meeting was a major irritant. (Actually, as a construction guy, he used a few other words.) 

Hank’s heart resonated with Eric Liddell, the Scottish runner in the 1924 Olympics, who said, “I believe God made me for a purpose . . . but he also made me fast. And when I run, I feel His pleasure.”[2] Hank’s joy meter always ramped up when he mixed sawdust with service.

So that morning, we talked about Hank, board service, and joy at that fork-in-the-road board retreat. We talked about balancing board roles by defining the three board hats: the Governance Hat, the Volunteer Hat, and the Participant Hat.

This insight was birthed that weekend:

If you need a board member, recruit a board member.
If you need a volunteer, recruit a volunteer.

Peter Drucker, the father of modern management and a champion of nonprofit organizations, once said, “There is one thing all boards have in common. . . . They do not function.”[3]

You may chuckle at Drucker’s tongue-in-cheek wisdom, but was he describing your board? By understanding these three hats—three distinct board roles—you will eliminate confusion and dysfunction for your current board. When interviewing prospective board members, you can clearly articulate these core principles so new board members will avoid bringing their own delightful dysfunctions into your boardroom.

The best boards carefully delineate the Volunteer Hat from the Governance Hat by affirming these two principles:

  • PRINCIPLE 1: Many can volunteer, but only the board can govern. Bruce Bugbee, author of What You Do Best in the Body of Christ, said a friend once asked him, “Why are you doing what others can do when you are leaving undone what only you can do?”[4]

Board members are directly accountable to God for the ministry. To spiritually discern God’s direction takes time. Only the board can set direction, establish and revise policies, select and support the CEO, and monitor and measure results.

So with God’s leading, boards must recruit competent men and women for board service, especially those who have passion for good governance. And good governance takes time and often leaves little or no time for other volunteer roles.

  • PRINCIPLE 2: Volunteering is optional. Volunteer service must be passion-based and aligned with a volunteer’s spiritual gifts and strengths. At the end of every board meeting, the CEO might say:

“Just a reminder that we need 50 key volunteers this year. If you have the passion, spiritual gifting, and strengths to tackle a volunteer project, then let’s talk. Of course, your volunteer role is separate from your governance role—and every board member need not be a volunteer. But if you do volunteer, please remove your Governance Hat when wearing your Volunteer Hat!”



Not all volunteers are competent as board members.
So as you recruit board members, find men and women
who understand—and are effective at wearing—the Governance Hat.
Governance includes: God-honoring discernment (as a group),
stewarding and sustaining the ministry, measuring and monitoring programs,
focusing on the future, hiring/firing the CEO, and much more.
That takes time—and special expertise.

  Board Action Steps:

  1. View and Engage: As a board, watch the short video in the ECFA Governance Toolbox Series No. 2: Balancing Board Roles—Understanding the 3 Board Hats: Governance, Volunteeer, Participant.[5]
  2. True or False? We regularly review our board’s committee structure to ensure that our committees are focused on governance work, not on staff or volunteer work.
  3. Assess: Are there individuals on our board we could bless by releasing them to their greater passions—their volunteer roles?



Lord, give us discernment to identify future board members who love
and are enriched by the governance role,
and lead us to equally competent people who find joy in using their gifts
in volunteer roles. Amen.



[1] Gary Keller and Jay Papasan, The ONE Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results (Austin, TX: Bard, 2012), 1-3.

[2] Chariots of Fire, directed by Hugh Hudson (1981; United Kingdom: Warner Home Video, 2005), DVD.

[3] Peter F. Drucker, Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices (New York: HarperBusiness, 1993), 628.

[4] Bruce Bugbee, What You Do Best in the Body of Christ: Discover Your Spiritual Gifts, Personal Style, and God-Given Passion (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1995), 135.

[5] ECFA Governance Toolbox Series No. 2: Balancing Board Roles—Understanding the 3 Board Hats: Governance, Volunteer, Participant (Winchester, VA: ECFAPress, 2013), https://www.ecfa.org/ProductDownload.aspx?ProductID=90.

From Lessons From the Nonprofit Boardroom: 40 Insights for Better Board Meetings, 2018, www.ECFA.org/KnowledgeCenter.

This text is provided with the understanding that ECFA is not rendering legal, accounting, or other professional advice or service. Professional advice on specific issues should be sought from an accountant, lawyer, or other professional.