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The Challenges of a Scottish Heritage Society Board of Directors


As all-volunteer organizations (AVOs), Scottish heritage societies live or die by their officers and boards of directors. As indicated un the COSCA Society News section, many organizations are creating new communications programs, offering scholarships, supporting restoration projects, conducting ancestral tours in Scotland, publishing new books, advancing genealogy studies, and much more. Other groups are languishing and on the verge of collapse. Some boards are meeting regularly and focusing on their organization’s mission. Others act like social clubs or therapy sessions for outsized egos.



According to Jan Masaoka, all boards have two types of responsibilities: (1) maintaining the legal and financial aspects of the nonprofit corporation and (2) conducing the work of the organization in terms of managing, leading, and doing. (Masaoka, Jan. 2012. All Hands on Board: The Board of Directors in All-Volunteer Organizations. Washington DC: Support Center for Non-Profit Management.) 

The first set of responsibilities include handling the money, ensuring federal and state compliance, make big decisions for the future, ensuring accountability to constituents, get help when needed, and plan for arrival and departure of individual members of the board. The second set of responsibilities includes getting the work done, supporting other volunteers so they can successfully contribute to the organization's work, being ambassadors to the community, and providing leadership in spirit. (Ibid.)

Challenge: Expectations

The first challenge Scottish heritage societies face is to set the expectations for each officer and board member. Every role should have a job description and standards for performance, even for “at large” members. Ideally, each member of the board should have a specific function. This will eliminate inactive, “dead wood” members. 

According to leadership coach and consultant Gordon Sheppard, effective non-profits approach a board meeting like it’s a business: they define clear goals for each meeting, they know how to recruit the right board members and they get rid of anyone who doesn’t fit, and they hold themselves accountable and they get real results that can be measured. (Shepard, Gordon. “How to Build a Better Non-Profit Board of Directors.” Meeting Leadership.) Ineffective non-profits approach a board meeting like it’s a club: board members are selfishly volunteering to pad their resume; members say they will raise money or plan an event, but they don’t actually do it; and where everybody is too ‘nice’ and nothing ever gets done. (Ibid.)


You may develop a board “scorecard” or “tracking” document. Alyson Landers suggests that this this “helps formalize the kinds of help you hope to receive from the Board member and clarifies expectations for all parties involved” and that “the only mistake you can make is to remain quiet and then grow frustrated that your board doesn’t help.”Landers, Alyson. 2022. “Strategic Methods to Motivate Your Board Members.”) 

Challenge: Motivation

As you work with your board members, you will discover that each will have different motivations. These can generally be categorize as personal reasons and altruistic motivations. In their study 2006 “A Scale to Assess Board Member Motivations in Nonprofit Organizations,” Sue Inglis and Shirley Cleave found that board members’ motivations to serve could be grouped into altruistic categories (enhancement of self-worth, unique contributions to the board, and helping community) and personal reasons (developing individual relationships, learning through community, and self-healing.) (MacDonald, Grant. 2017. “Motivating board members: it’s complicated.”)

While altruistic motives are the most important for a successful board and organization, both personal and altruistic motivations need to be acknowledged and supported.


Challenge: Engagement


The next challenge is the level of “board engagement,” which directly impacts the organization’s effectiveness and resiliency. According to the Nonprofit Board Engagement Survey Report, “Board engagement is the degree to which individuals on a nonprofit board prepare for meetings, participate actively in meetings, complete tasks between meetings, advocate for the nonprofit in the community, further development goals, and bring ideas and solutions to the larger board.” (Nonprofit Board Engagement Survey Report. 2021. Carmel, Indiana: Boardable.) To meet this challenge, make sure that you arrange regular meetings (monthly or quarterly) well enough in advance to ensure the greatest level of attendance. If your board members show up for meetings unprepared, check in with them beforehand and ask questions about the agenda items. During the meeting, engage each member of the board and request their input. Between meetings, check in with each member of the board to ensure that they are on task. Always provide opportunities for each member to interact directly with your members – even if you have to step back.


Challenge: Performance

As Jan Masaoka notes, “Frequently in an all volunteer organization, the board members' primary responsibility is to get the work done, both by pulling their own shoulders to the task as well as by organizing others.” (Masaoka, Jan. 2012. All Hands on Board: The Board of Directors in All-Volunteer Organizations. Washington DC: Support Center for Non-Profit Management.) This is always a challenge for people with a wide range of time commitments to volunteer. Masaoka adds that “one of the board's key roles is to organize the work to make it easy for volunteers to do it well.” (Ibid.)
Leadership coach and consultant Gordon Sheppard notes that “Some People Gotta Grow” and “Some People Gotta Go.” He notes that “Some of the volunteers you have on your current board only need a little bit of guidance to become awesome board members. Don’t wait to do something about this! Creating and executing a growth plan for each board member will; deepen their commitment to your organization; help you recruit new board members more easily because they’ll hear about how much your current board members are learning, growing and contributing.” (Sheppard, Gordon. 2016. “How To Create Awesome Nonprofit Board Meetings.”)

However, even with encouragement and support, some board members are just not a good fit. In this case: “So stop being so nice and find a way to respectfully help your poor performing board members to exit. Because if you don’t get rid of the dead wood, then your high performing board members may become frustrated and quit, and you’ll continue to have unproductive board meetings.” (Ibid.)
Jan Masaoka recommends that you be “sensitive to possible health issues or personal reasons why a good board member isn’t participating as much as he or she has in the past” and “ransfer responsibilities to someone else.” (Masaoka, Jan. 2009. “What to Do with Board Members Who Don’t Do Anything.”) You may want to revise what is expected of board members or “make it possible for individuals to take a leave of absence from the board if they have health, work, or other reasons why they cannot participate fully for a while.” (Ibid.)

Challenges: Recruitment

One of the greatest challenges for Scottish heritage societies is recruiting and building new leadership, especially from the younger generations.
Jan Masaoka suggests that “longtime leaders and volunteers view the organization as ‘their baby’ and are sharply critical and undermining of anyone whose approach is different” and “they may constantly find fault with new volunteers or refuse to allow new people to have real responsibility.” (Masaoka, Jan. 2012. All Hands on Board: The Board of Directors in All-Volunteer Organizations. Washington DC: Support Center for Non-Profit Management.) You can turn around this perception by being genuinely open to new people, new ideas, and new ways to doing things.


Millennials, aged 25 to 40, are the largest generation of individuals since the Baby Boomers. According to the 2016 Millennial Impact Report, over 70% of them believe they can moderately or significantly improve causes they care about. They believe that people ought to help their community and the world, a belief held by 85% of millennial respondents in a 2021 Points of Light Report.

According to Volgistics, Volunteer Logistics, You can attract and recruit these younger people in the following ways:


  • Reach Out Digitally to Potential Volunteers: Approach them through email or on Facebook, Twitter, or other social media platforms will be more effective than mailing a flyer to their homes. 

  • Stay in Touch After an Event: Millennials value personal relationships and they like to feel appreciated.

  • Provide Chances to Gain Professional Experience: Many millennials are just entering the workforce or seeking their first chance for advancement and so anything you can do to assist them as they climb the ladder will be appreciated.

  • Discuss Their Views on Your Organization: Millennials have a fresh take on the world that can benefit any organization. Ask for suggestions on how to better connect with your target audience, or gain a fresh perspective on your social media best practices. 

  • Be Authentic in All Your Communication: Millennials prefer assisting organizations that are straightforward and honest in how they portray themselves. They’re a savvy, sophisticated group when it comes to marketing, and they do not like being talked down to.


(“How To Recruit And Engage Millennial Volunteers.”)


What challenges do you have with your Scottish heritage society? What successes have you achieve? Contact us and let us know!

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