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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. 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. 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.

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.

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. A 2006 study 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.)

Challenge: Engagement

The next challenge is the level of “board engagement,” which directly impacts the organization’s effectiveness and resiliency. 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.

Challenge: Performance

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. Leadership coach and consultant Gordon Sheppard 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.”

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.”

Challenges: Recruitment

One of the greatest challenges for Scottish heritage societies is recruiting and building new leadership, especially from the younger generations. In All Hands on Board, 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.” You can attract and recruit younger people by reaching out digitally, staying in touch, providing chances to gain professional experience, asking their views, and being authentic in all your communication.

If you are COSCA Organizational Member Delegate or Alternate, you can learn more from the Member Services resource here:

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