How Trimming Committees Empowers Volunteers

By: Mark Athitakis

Feeling weighed down by an unwieldy governance structure, the Oncology Nursing Society made a bold move: It axed almost all of its committees.  The result was more nimble and engaged volunteering.

When it comes to volunteering, sometimes less is more.

In the late '90s the leadership of the Oncology Nursing Society (ONS), which represents 37,000 cancer-care professionals, detected symptoms of a weak volunteer structure. Too many committees without a clear mission. Too many member groups that existed primarily to keep themselves running. "There were a lot of committees that were not really adding value to the organization," says Brian Theil, CAE, director of membership and component relations at ONS.

So ONS took the extreme measure of eliminating nearly all of its committees; the only one left standing today is its nominating committee. As for the rest, ONS staff decides on a rolling basis what needs require filling, then invites members to participate. Some groups are advisory panels, which provide input to ONS on emerging issues. Others are more formal project teams that have a specific goal with a specific end date.

At the core of what Theil calls ONS's "adhocracy" is a member survey that gathers data on volunteers' particular spheres of interest. ONS uses that data when inviting participants to the groups. The looseness of the structure, plus the information ONS has gathered on members, has allowed it to be more nimble in responding to new ideas, Theil says. For instance, when a company approached ONS with money it wanted to invest in a leadership project, ONS was able to rapidly assemble a project team that defined the criteria for a new program.

Volunteers still abound at ONS: Theil estimates that approximately 3,000 members participate in either chapter leadership or the volunteer groups. About a dozen ad hoc groups are running at any given time, he says, with shelf lives from six months to a year.

"The commitment's a little clearer—they understand what they're being asked to do," he says. "If you go out and say, 'We want you to join this committee,' people get a sense of, 'That sounds like a lot of work.' For us, doing these project teams for six months or a year, people are more willing to say yes."

That means ONS has been able to maintain a leadership ladder for the organization without unnecessary makework: Leaders of ad hoc groups that are demonstrably effective and purposeful have established a track record of taking on greater leadership roles later on.

"We definitely have an active core group of members that do remain engaged with the organization despite not having that typical governance structure," says Theil.

Mark Athitakis is a contributing editor for Associations Now. Email: [email protected]

[This article was originally published in the Associations Now print edition, titled "Making the Cut."]

Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis is a contributing editor to Associations Now.