Non-profits, governments struggle to find board members

She looked at her watch impatiently.How long had they been there? It seemed like days. The agenda had looked reasonably short, but after nearly two hours they were only on the second item.


Members of the Hospice of Montezuma board gather for their monthly meeting at the Cortez library. Finding enough dedicated volunteers to serve on non-profit, special district and governmental boards can be a challenge in rural areas. Photo by Wendy Mimiaga.

She had joined the non-profit’s boardbecause she believed in the cause, butshe had nothing to contribute to thisendless droning about financial reports and staffing problems. She felt like a warm body that helped provide aquorum, nothing more. Now she waswondering what excuse she could use to resign.

The executive director collapsed in tears after the meeting. It was the same story over and over. The board members had good intentions but the meetings rarely accomplished anything and, as usual, she was left with more tasks and less guidance. Most people thought being on the board was a status symbol, something to pad their résumés, that wouldn’t require a commitment beyond the two-hour monthly meeting. She wondered where she would go if she got up the nerve to quit.

Do not try to identify these people. They are composites from any number of organizations in our community.

Communities are run by a plethora of boards and councils. The most obvious are within county and municipal government: county commissions, town councils, planning and zoning commissions. Another visible type of board operates public schools.

But there are also special districts, which oversee such operations as utilities, water, cemeteries, hospitals, firefighting, television and radio, soil conservation, sewer services, and mosquito control. In Montezuma County there are 24 such special districts; in Dolores County there are nine, all needing to be managed by some sort of board.

And then there are hundreds of nonprofit groups and foundations that work for charitable, cultural, agricultural, educational, medical, veterans’ and other causes.

There are 211 tax-exempt/non-profit organizations in Montezuma County, 19 in Dolores County, 454 in La Plata County, 44 in Utah’s San Juan County, and a staggering 454 in New Mexico’s San Juan County, according to These, too, are governed by boards.

All these entities need motivated, responsible, intelligent people to guide them. But finding such folks and keeping them can be very difficult.

What motivates someone to sit on a board? Is it a sense of masochism (or, in some cases sadism) as some former board members might report?

Pat Smith, a national author in board management, has found that people join boards for three reasons: passion for the mission, a desire to give back to the community, or because a friend asked.

All these reasons serve to get people on boards, but they can have drawbacks.

Having passion for something is not synonymous with being equipped to lead it. And joining a board because a friend asked may lead to resentment if the primary reason for joining is guilt or peer pressure. Also, having friends recruit board members tends to result in very homogeneous groups without the diversity that is representative of the community or organization.

Unfortunately, not enough effort is expended by nominating committees to analyze potential board members, not only trying to match the person to the cause, but also deciding whether or not he or she posseses the basic interest or ability to serve effectively.

The STP concept

Throughout Montezuma County and other small communities, there is a chronic shortage of people willing and qualified to serve on boards.

The result is known as the concept of STP (the “same ten people”) who provide the majority of leadership. According to Boardsource (, in any community it’s about 5 percent of the people who serve on all the non-profit boards and make decisions impacting the other 95 percent.

“It’s unfortunate, but the STP rule is alive and well in our community,” said Kathy Rousset, executive director of Hospice of Montezuma, a non-profit that provides hospice services in the area. Rousset said her organization runs into the same problem of board recruitment and retention. People come and go but she generally counts on the STP to help her accomplish a multitude of tasks.

Deb Avery, executive director of the Cortez Cultural Center, expressed the same sentiment. “I wish more people would step up to the plate,” she said. “There are just not enough people willing to serve on local boards.”

Both women voiced appreciation for their current boards but understand the difficulty of recruiting and keeping effective leaders.

Former Montezuma County Commissioner Kelly Wilson, who has served on a plethora of boards and is currently chair of the Ag Expo board and vice president of the Montezuma County Historical Society board, said it’s a challenge to find qualified individuals willing to serve.

“People work and have kids and different activities,” Wilson said. “It’s a challenge to find the people that fit the slots you’re looking for and, secondly, to get them talked into it. I fully respect people who back off.”

But the result, he said, is that “the same people seem to be doing all the things. As a result, and I don’t mean to be critical, that’s the way the community goes. You get a dozen people that go from board to board to board, and their thinking doesn’t change.”

Most boards tend to be made up of middle-aged to older folks, he said. “Young people with little kids — it’s hard for them to volunteer unless it’s for something like the school board.” Another problem, he said, is that sometimes individuals get onto a board, particularly a special-district or governmental one, because they have an “ax to grind” or a single issue that interests them. When they find out that bringing about change is a slow process, they give up and quit.

And meetings can be dauntingly dull unless they’re well-run. “People with the leadership capabilities can make it interesting and get the meeting over with and get the job done,” Wilson said. The Ag Expo meetings start at 7 and end promptly at 9, he said. “Two hours is about all your butt can take, anyway.”

Wilson recently left the Southwest Regional Advisory Council, a citizens’ group that works with the BLM, because he wanted more free time. But he still finds himself in demand. “After awhile, you start thinking, isn’t there anybody else that can do this? But people say, ‘Kelly, we asked somebody, but they don’t show up.’

“All these groups are looking for volunteers and they’re all looking for money.”

Still, he has found the work rewarding. “Overall it’s been quite a ride and I enjoyed it, mostly.”

Giving back

Pat Kantor of Dolores, a member of the Dolores Public Library board and a founding member of CFAR (Citizens for Accountability and Responsibility), said good boards have “a dedication to what the group is doing and a realization that you can make a difference.”

Kantor, who was a member of several other groups while in Sedona, Ariz., sees board service as a duty and a way to influence the future.

“Certain people feel a responsibility to give back to the community and I think that’s important,” she said. “I wish everybody did. We all live in and enjoy a community. To sit passively and watch the community happen means that it really can happen in ways that you don’t want.”

She believes more people would serve if they understood what different organizations do and what a critical role they fill. “The community depends on these people,” she said. “The people on the board shape the policies of that organization.”

Ginger Freeman of Cortez is atypical in that she is a young mother with two children who still has found time to be a Partners mentor and serve on the board of Hospice of Montezuma as well as a school parent-teacher organization.

She joined the hospice board in 2004 after being rejected by another local non-profit — that group, she said, told her mother they would not want Freeman because they wanted only business owners on their board.

“It really hurt my feelings,” Freeman said. “It seemed funny because they’re always looking for people. I was telling someone about it and he said, ‘I’m on the hospice board and they are actively recruiting,’ so I wound up there.”

Freeman is now looking to rotate off that group, of which she is vice president. “It’s hard,” she said, “because I want to make sure there is someone to take my place.”

Buying in

Montezuma County has a plethora of “amenity migrants” – retired professionals who come to the area for its beauty and bring with them a wealth of experience and knowledge. Many locals believe there is a rich pool of leaders just waiting for the right opportunity to appear.

One question is whether there is adequate representation of different cultures in the governing organizations of Montezuma County. This is a critical question boards need to ask themselves when recruiting new members.

There are many reasons people choose not to serve on boards. People may feel ill-equipped and/or incompetent to serve. If they have different ideas than the other members, they may feel out of place.

Economic factors can also be a deterrent. Serving on councils, commissions or boards rarely provides much compensation. The Cortez City Council pays its members $400 a month, but even then it has difficulty getting people to run for office. Mancos trustees receive $150 a month; Dolores Town Board members get $25 per meeting.

And it’s rare for non-profits or special districts to give anything to their boards beyond remuneration for time and travel — if that. Not only does board service not pay, it may actually cost money.

Freeman said she was surprised by the hospice board’s requirement — a common practice among non-profit boards — that members make a financial contribution to the organization as a way to “buy in” and show their support.

When deciding grants and funding, foundations may require or look for financial contribution from board members, according to many people who have served on boards.

“I didn’t like that,” Freeman said. “I felt like I’m already giving my time and my energy and my skills.” She works on fundraising for hospice and provides their web-site services for free.

Eventually she wrote a check for $1, which the other board members said was fine, because she couldn’t afford to give more.

Still, she said her service has been very rewarding. “I think hospice is a great group and a great cause.”

Bridging the gap

Board members drop out for a number of reasons; one of the most common is that they did not understand what was required of them in the first place. Both Avery and Rousset agreed that board packets and a good introduction to the roles and responsibilities of members are critical.

Another key requirement is that group members feel they’re contributing and accomplishing something – not just attending meetings.

Lisa Liljedahl, a longtime board member with many organizations, said boards needed to understand their role and not try to micro-manage an organization. She said she had seen a lot of problems with board members who went beyond their roles into active and/or intrusive management, either due to inexperience or lack of understanding.

Organizations such as the Southwest Community Leadership Collaborative and private leadership consultants are working to find and equip leaders in this area. The SCLC provides opportunities for people to learn more about the community through Leadership Montezuma; educates leaders on the roles and responsibilities of being on a board or council through the Summit Leadership Series; provides highschool students with community information and leadership skills through the High School Leadership Program; and provides information on the various water issues in this area through Water 101 (which will be conducting another workshop in October).

Efforts such as these seek to eliminate the STP concept.

Rebecca Larson, a consultant, said the idea of the Summit Leadership series came out of work groups during a Community Summit meeting five years ago. These groups identified a lack of people willing to step into leadership roles in Montezuma County. They theorized that perhaps people needed more skills to feel competent. With that in mind they and others created the Summit Leadership Series – a seven-month “board school” that teaches many aspects of serving on boards.

Kantor said both Leadership Montezuma and the Summit Leadership Series can be invaluable in helping citizens learn what different groups are out there and what they do. “I was blown away five years ago when I did Montezuma Leadership and found out about all these different organizations,” she said. “Then the Summit Leadership program really goes into the intricacies of what boards are supposed to do. That helped me a lot.”

There may not be a simple answer to the long-standing dilemma. However, a healthy community is dependent on the effectiveness of its leaders. It is up to the people who benefit from the many organizations in the area, as well as the organizations themselves, to decide how to encourage councils and boards to continue spending the time, money and energy to make decisions that affect us all.

For information on the Southwest Community Leadership Collaborative contact Susan Hakanson, P.O. Box 609, Cortez, info@swcommunityleadership. org, 970-379-3303.

From October 2008.