Saturday, November 23, 2019

Community organizations and how not to kill them

Someone asked me recently for advice, help, whatever regarding a local community group. It has the usual issues: stagnant leadership, low volunteer numbers, the classic everyone says they want various actions or events but no one is willing to step up and assume actual responsibility. I used to be involved with the organization so, yes, I had thoughts. I definitely had thoughts, including a few about why I'm no longer involved.

Way back when dinosaurs roamed the earth, I was a Girl Scout leader, and not just a leader. I was so into being a leader that I even owned a uniform (and would occasionally embarrass my kids by wearing it in public). In addition to being a regular troop leader, I volunteered to become a trainer. Back in the '70s Peninsula Waters Girl Scout Council sponsored workshops (no doubt they still do) that focused on helping leaders be better leaders and encouraging more volunteer involvement. The key points stuck with me. I will actually bullet point them:
  • Everyone's reason for volunteering is different
  • Everyone's contribution is important, no matter how small
  • Always thank people, never criticize, either behind their backs or to their face
  • There will always be people who will complain no matter what a group does
  • Trying to "guilt" people into helping never works
First, motivations. Why do people become involved in an organization?
  1. They support the mission, whether it's preserving local history, maintaining a community building, or doing charitable work. 
  2. They enjoy the tasks involved. For example, people who like children will volunteer to help youth groups -- which can be a two-fer. They like being around the kids and they support the group's mission. 
  3. They like the other people in the organization and enjoy spending time with them. If you ask people why they joined a book club or a historical society or began attending a church, it's almost always because one or more of their friends invited them. 
Second, contributions. None of us know what's going on in another person's life. Things might look fine to an outside observer, but we can never really know what their reality is like when no one is watching. Asking someone to contribute to a bake sale table might be a financial stretch if they're relying on the Community Action Agency food distributions or the SNAP program, options most people prefer not to talk about with casual acquaintances. Someone can have health issues that prevent them doing anything involving prolonged standing, like being a museum docent. You never know. So when someone says "I'm sorry, I can't do that but I can do this" you thank them for the package of napkins while trying not to think about the lifetime supply of napkins already stashed in the storage cabinet. Maybe this year the person couldn't do what you hoped, but if you're nice next time around they might be in a better position and can make a larger or more useful contribution. At the very least, they may recommend your group to others even if they can't help themselves.

Third, criticisms and verbal gaffes. You've really got to watch your mouth. One ill-timed sentence and you've lost a member or a donor forever. This is especially true if you're in a leadership position. I've witnessed a couple jaw-dropping gaffes that resulted in people either disappearing over the horizon forever or close to it.  If other members of your group manage to violate this rule, you need to do damage control. When someone says stuff like "I'll rejoin when <insert name of clueless geezer here> is dead," you know who in your membership opened mouth and inserted foot, probably well past the knee.

One of my personal favorites when it comes to truly fucking up and insulting someone big time involved a group where some turnover in leadership was happening. This was a Very Good Thing, but naturally one of the old coots (the outgoing leadership) had to screw things up. An annual event was coming up, a different person than usual volunteered to take care of obtaining supplies, and everyone seemed fine with it. Then a few days before the event the person who had done it in previous years starts calling people to announce they* had the supplies because they happened to be in town and had asked at the usual vendor if the new volunteer had picked up anything yet. Answer: No. So they took it upon themselves to buy the supplies right then and there.

Well, the vendor was one of three locally, there was never a requirement that any specific one had to be used, so for all the meddling member knew the new person had shopped someplace else and everything was fine. If they aren't sure, then go ask in person or find a phone and call (this was before cell phones). The old person did neither, just assumed the new volunteer was incompetent because they hadn't shopped where the old person had shopped in the past, and walked all over them. Even worse, the old person ran their mouth. Big time. Told half the county how they had saved the event from certain disaster. And then told and retold the story for years until it became part of their family folklore, the Year Their Parent Saved the event. And now that person's children repeat the story. It's become the insult that never stops. Holy fuck. The stupid, it burns.

Fourth, complainers. One of the things emphasized at various trainings was that in a theoretical population of 100 people you'll have a small percentage (4 or 5) willing to be leaders or assume positions of responsibility (president, treasurer), 20 to 30 percent willing to help if they don't have to be decision makers, 50 to 60 percent will support you indirectly (come to a community event, buy raffle tickets, visit your museum), and 5 percent will trash talk everything the group and the people in it do. These people will never be happy. If you're trying to preserve a historic building, they'll denigrate its history, tell you it's a useless effort, and someone should just torch it. If you're involved with a youth group, it'll be you're wasting your time, it's up to the parents and the schools, don't bother. No matter what anyone tries to do, there will be people who radiate negativity. Ignore them.

Fifth, guilt tripping. It doesn't work. It just pisses people off. Try to guilt trip someone into helping with anything and odds are they're going to walk away and not look back. If it's a relative or close friend, you may think you've succeeded because they'll help occasionally, but all you're doing is building a well of resentment that will eventually come back to drown you. Call it karma or call it payback. Either way, it's a bitch.

Since going through the Girl Scout training, I've learned more about organizations. A lot more. I hadn't planned on it, but I wound up writing a doctoral dissertation that, depending on your perspective, is either a history of engineering or an in-depth study of organizational sociology. The Piled-Higher-and-Deeper is in Science and Technology Studies (interdisciplinary history, sociology, and philosophy) so I guess it can be either. Or maybe a treatise of philosophy of knowledge and professionalism. Organizational behavior in any case.

The document, Brothers Professionally and Socially: The Rise of Local Engineering Societies During the Gilded Age, focused on what in retrospect feels like a gazillion local engineering societies, some of which are still around and some of which died lingering painful deaths. Because I had sociologists on my committee, I had to do a considerable amount of data crunching. I learned how to use statistical analysis software designed specifically for the social sciences. I knew statistics before (2 quarters at MTU as an undergrad) but by the time I finished counting engineers I really knew statistics. I even managed to pass myself off as a quantoid. The sociologists were happy. But what was the bottom line after all the data crunching? What ground-breaking conclusions did I reach after risking carpal tunnel doing data entry and creating multiple tables?

Democracy matters. Turnover matters. Stagnant organizations die. Every voluntary organization starts off fired up with enthusiasm. That initial enthusiasm will not sustain a group forever. It has to be renewed regularly. Want to guarantee your organization, whether it's a church congregation, a fraternal organization, or a local historical society, ends up taking the proverbial dirt nap? Encourage stagnation. Allow the same people to hold the same offices indefinitely.

This isn't exactly ground-breaking. It's actually such a classic in organizational sociology that it has a name: The Problem of Generations. You get someone in office, there's no provision in the by-laws that sets term limits, and that person ends up either clinging to his or her office like a barnacle on a ship bottom or the membership gets comfortable with assuming that person will never die. The organization shrinks because nonmembers see no point in joining, old ones age out, and younger members leave. Why should they? Either President-for-Life has everything under control (no need for new members) or PfL is so resistant to new ideas that people figure why bother? They've got ideas but when the person who's been there forever shoots them down, they walk away.

Finally, and this was just a life lesson, the world is full of people who have no clue what the word "volunteer" means. For whatever reason, they are incapable of imagining anyone investing time and energy in anything if they aren't getting paid. Back when I was a Girl Scout leader, there were always a few parents who wanted to know how much the leaders got paid. They could not believe we were willing to spend time with their kids and not get compensated for it (which kind of tells you something about the low opinion they had of their own spawn if they believed people needed bribes to put up with them). When the S.O.and I volunteer as campground hosts at various state and federal parks there are always campers who have a hard time believing we're doing it when the only compensation is being at the park. I run into people all the time who think I get paid to be at the museum. Nope, the museum is 100% volunteer**. The idea that some tasks are intrinsically rewarding without there being a cash benefit is one some people will never understand.

*The editor in me cringes at the use of "they" as a singular pronoun, but it is less awkward than he/she. Maybe. 

**The budget would have to have more digits in it to afford an actual paid manager or other staff. 


  1. You were a scout leader? Now I'm picturing you as Nurse Crane!

    1. A better parallel would be Chummy on "Call the Midwife."

  2. I use to be the volunteer where I saw leadership needed. It always turned in to a full time job with no pay.
    the Ol'Buzzard


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