A Short Note on Managing the 501: Authority
© 2014 EEASI Corporation


Within a 501 organization, the least understood management concept is that of Authority. Perhaps the best analysis of authority that has ever been written is that of Chester I. Barnard [Barnard, 1938: xii]. In his classic work, Barnard establishes numerous principles concerning the character of authority within organizations. By far, the single most important principle is that one should never give an order that cannot or will not be obeyed. To do so immediately compromises the credibility of the authority figure. This holds for 501 directors as well.

In contradistinction to the dictionary definition, Barnard argues that the key element in authority is that authority granted by subordinates through their consent, even if power is involve. This view emanates from the fact that there does not exist an innate power of authority that any one individual holds over any other. Even within organizations such as the Army: "...an Army does not move forward until the motion has "carried" . "Unanimous consent" only follows cooperation between the individual men in the ranks." [Barnard, 1938:164], paragraph 3.

Authority is thus a bargain of sorts, and subordinates grant authority with the expectation that they will receive a benefit as a result of granting authority. Nothing could be more true of the relationship between the volunteers and the directors of the 501 than that (1) authority is a bargain, not a right; and (2) in granting authority to the directors, there is an expectation of the volunteer that this bargain will be fulfilled; (3) if the bargain is not fulfilled, authority can be rescinded by the volunteer

A subtle point is made by Barnard in stating that communication is equivalent to authority. Barnard is referring to organizations, but this holds for the volunteer-director relationship as well. This point can be combined with the specification that the lines of communication must be as short as possible and that every communication must be authenticated.

That authority is equivalent to communication can be understood when we consider the case of a director who uses intermediaries, or proxies, to communicate instructions rather than interacting with the volunteer directly. If the volunteer chooses to ignore the proxy, the authority of the director is compromised. If communications that come from intermediaries are not completely clear, their meaning is lost along with their significance to the volunteer and the authority of the director is compromised. In short, compromised communications equals compromised authority and compromised authority equals loss of confidence by the volunteer in the director.

The conclusion for the director is that if they are to maintain authority and thus be able to effectively direct the volunteer in a manner so that the volunteer will achieve the goals of the organization, then communication best be direct and clear. Vague, ambiguous or metaphorical communications must be clarified and if the volunteer does not feel empowered to ask the questions necessary to achieve an understanding of the communication, the the authority of the director is compromised, and worse, the success of the volunteer-director bargain is at risk. Such compromises of communication must be addressed as soon as they surface because to ignore them invites the gradual degradation of the volunteer-director relationship.

Banard sets forth four conditions under which a communication/ instruction will be accepted as authoritative, i.e., the volunteer will be willing to comply with the instruction:

(a) the volunteer understands the instruction; (b) he/she believes that the following the instruction is consistent with the goals that he/she and the director have agreed upon; (c) he/she believes that following the instruction is compatible with his/her interest as a whole; (d) he/she is mentally and physically able to follow the instruction. Adapted from [ Barnard, 1938: 165] .

Authority does not mean subjugation of the volunteer's will and intellect to the director. A subjugation relationship will be suboptimal and will eventually breed anger, resentment or even a "mutiny" by the volunteer. Once such tensions set in, a loss of confidence in the director develops by the volunteer and the future cooperation of the volunteer will be compromised.

Volunteer-director authority models can vary greatly. These differences can be seen most clearly in comparing male-male and male-female authority models. What works between two males will not necessarily work in a male-female director-volunteer relationship. In general, autocratic authority models are less efficient and effective than collaborative authority models.

Of all liabilities that can come from a loss of authority by the director, for what ever reason, the loss of confidence by the volunteer in the director is the most critical. Confidence and trust are the director's best ally. Without the volunteer's confidence, the director's skills and knowledge are for naught. It is for this reason that the director must understand the nature of authority and be mindful of not compromising it.

More seriously, if the volunteer-director relationship is compromised, the organization will suffer, most notably, through an increase in the cost of the maintenance of the logistics train of the organization.