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Rural Volunteer Boards Taxed To The Max

Rural volunteers who serve on community-based boards are frequently struggling with the complexities of their job and lack sources of help and advice.

Those are conclusions drawn from an exploration of volunteer involvement on rural community-based boards done by a Brandon University adult student earning her masters of rural development.

Betty Kelly, who lives, and, until recently, farmed at Poplar Point, says her own life’s experience living rurally and working with many volunteer groups prompted her to devote her thesis to the issue.

Her study’s findings are compiled in an executive summary titled Strengthening Communities by Strengthening Social Service Boards, in which she documents a rural voluntary sector under increasing strain.

High board turnover rates, especially among child-care centre boards, difficulties recruiting new board members, and numerous unmet needs due to constraints providing service have made fragile a sector that has served rural communities for generations.


The problem stems from growing complexities related to financial and budgetary matters and policies, plus rising public expectations and increased accountability requirements, says Kelly.

“People are joining boards and volunteering because they believe in the service and they want to do something to give back to their community or make a difference,” she said. “And they quickly realize it’s much more complex than they ever dreamed.”

For her research, she used a combination of surveys, focus groups and key informant questionnaires to look at both the composition of social service non-profit boards as well as their challenges. In all, 92 volunteer boards out of 311 returned the survey, including 71 from organizations providing child-care services and 21 providing other services such as boards that oversee the delivery of sheltered workshops, women’s crisis centres, family resources and Canadian Mental Health Agency regional resource centres.

Between these boards trying to provide this range of adult and child-care services, she finds “a system stretched beyond its capacity, trying hard to hold up under the accumulated load of expectations.”


Child-care facility boards – and there are three for every one adult support organization – have an especially tough time. Their boards are made up largely by persons with the least time to provide it – busy working parents. High board turnover is especially evident within this type of board. And very few chairs on these boards have much experience at their job; 88 per cent said they were chaired by persons with just three years’ experience or less.

“The research data reveals a clear picture of board members who bring commitment and passion to their roles and who are committed to their programs; yet are overworked, short of time and have limited knowledge of how to best do their jobs,” Kelly writes in her summary.

What could help? A key recommendation and need identified by these boards is for more training and skills development. “Board training and development is the top priority for organizations to operate more effectively,” the summary says.

The assumption seems to be that these boards possess the capacity to do their own board development, Kelly said. But they don’t necessarily have either the time, capacity, energy or funding for it. And they typically have few places to turn for help.

“All of these organizations are pretty much left on their own,” she said.


The study recommends creating a team of regional board governance consultants who could assist these boards with their governance capacity. Ideally, they should be publicly funded, and separate from those who fund and monitor these organizations, Kelly said.

“People said we need to be able to phone somebody to come to us and help us work on our problems and be a resource for us that’s separate from the people who license us and who fund us.”

Kelly said she believes supports to help boards operate more effectively will contribute to a stronger volunteer sector that is so important to Manitoba’s rural sector.

“I really do believe that supporting boards in the work they do for their community will in turn strengthen rural communities,” said Kelly, who was a guest speaker at the Provincial Council of Women of Manitoba’s annual general meeting in Carman in May.

Anyone wishing to contact Kelly for more information or for a copy of the executive summary can reach her at [email protected]

[email protected]

About the author


Lorraine Stevenson

Lorraine Stevenson is a reporter and photographer for the Manitoba Co-operator with 25 years experience writing news and features. She was previously a reporter with the Farmers Independent Weekly and has also written for community newspapers in Winnipeg and Manitoba's Interlake.



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