Help Not Wanted

February 3, 2022

My self-esteem can handle quite a lot, but getting ghosted by my township might be more than I can take. 

What’s wrong with me? Am I not good enough? Am I not smart enough? Why can’t I sit on any of the local advisory committees? 

Scrolling through my social media feed last week, I came across a post from my municipality asking for volunteers to fill empty seats on a handful of advisory committees. These requests pop up every year around this time, but this year I am not falling for their dastardly tricks. 

I have come across these posts annually since I moved to my neighborhood and each time, I’ve agreed to throw my hat in the proverbial ring cause, hey- I’m a civic minded individual and I talk a lot of shit about getting involved. I feel it’s important people find a way to do what they can to improve their community. One shouldn’t complain too much about the state of things if they aren’t willing to get their hands dirty. 

So I see these posting come up and decide I will try and to do my part. I want to get involved. I want to help my community. I want to sit in a room once a month and talk about city stuff. So I click, I fill in all my blanks, I write all about myself and my work and my eagerness. When I’m done, I hit ‘SUBMIT’ and I wait. And I wait, and I wait. If my calculations are correct, at this point, I’ve been waiting for four years. One year, I applied to join the Community Relations Board. No response. Another year I applied to join the Economic Development Council. No response. One year I applied to join the Planning Board. No response. One year, I even applied to join the Traffic Board and guess what happened. Fucking crickets. 

I really would like to be involved, but quite slowly it seems, I have learned my lesson and will not be applying this year. Why would I bother again? Why would I take the time to fill out the application information when I doubt anyone will even read it. It might only be 20 minutes, but that is 20 minutes I won’t be donating to an organization that doesn’t respect those minutes.

I understand I may not be qualified for some of these appointments. Really, what would I contribute to the traffic board discussion, but snarky comments about induced demand? But that’s not the point, no qualifications were mentioned in the posting, just a request for volunteers. And besides, I do feel like I am qualified for a couple of the posts. I have worked in planning, community revitalization and economic development for the past 15 years. I speak around the country on the subjects, and once, Donald Shoup re-shared one of my parking memes. I hope I am qualified, and if not, I am very excited to see who makes up these boards. Again though, not the point. Whether I am qualified or not, I took the time to apply and no one had the decency to respond. 

I didn’t fire up my laptop this morning just to complain about my municipality. Okay- maybe I did. It’s my blog, I’ll write what I want. No, I am writing this to make a bigger point. Don’t ask for volunteers if you don’t want them, need them, can’t use them or don’t have the capacity to handle them, because frankly- it’s insulting. I don’t know why my applications get ignored and I don’t necessarily care. Maybe someone over there loves parking and hates me for what I write. Maybe every application immediately gets thrown in the trash. Maybe there aren’t any boards and committees after-all and it’s just a big ruse to make people feel like the township is doing its civic engagement part. I don’t know and it doesn’t really matter except for the fact that I know I don’t trust the process. 

It’s a really poor practice on behalf of municipality to treat citizens like this and it does harm to an important relationship- the one between residents and their local government. What’s worse, the people they are ignoring are the ones most likely to be civic-minded and engaged. These are the people the township needs the most. The municipality reached out to me and all my fellow citizens asking for help, not the other way around, and yet they don’t have the time or concern to even respond. I take away from this experience that they don’t really want the help, but are simply going through the motions. It’s like asking someone out on a date and not even showing up. Yup, that’s right- I was stood up by my town. Not once. Four. Times. 

This is the type of stuff that creates animosity between a resident and their municipality. Local government should do better than to outsource their customer service department to a cable company. Does Comcast run my city? Not respecting resident’s time and input ensures they will be less engaged and less likely to get involved. 

Municipalities need the support of residents to thrive. They need people to be on their side. This is where the magic happens. Good cities require good residents. It’s a relationship between the two parties and the municipality has an obligation to nurture that relationship. Residents who feel valued and supported are far more likely to make good citizens. They are more likely to take care of their property, speak kindly of local government and its leadership, get involved in the community and participate in activities and the political process. The more civically engaged people in a community, the stronger that town will be. A city should aspire to have a healthy relationship with residents. When this is the case, both parties benefit. It’s called symbiosis- look it up.

I want to have a hand in making my community stronger. I want to be that guy. I want to apply what I have learned from my work and travels to the town I call home. I have a vested interest in making my community a better place to live and feel like I could make a real difference. But it seems my town doesn’t want my help. I guess they’ve got it covered.

I understand local government has a lot going on and maybe this doesn’t seem like a huge deal, but it’s a big mistake to overlook it. How residents feel about their town and the people that run it is a huge deal. That trust has been eroded in so many places that it makes it incredibly hard to get anything done. This is why progress is so challenging. I have heard people talk of generational distrust in their community and it starts with how people treat one another. The simple act of communication is what defines so much of our relationships and if the city can’t get it right, our relationship is going to be strained. If I don’t trust my local government, I am not going to believe what they tell me. I am not going to take their side and may not trust that they will do what is best for me. The small gestures of a relationship often dictate the nature of a relationship and set the tone. If a friend asked me for help, but wasn’t home when I got there, I am not going to respond to his request next time. The following time he does this, I may not be his friend anymore. He has made it clear what he thinks of my time and therefore my friendship. 

I run into a recurring theme in my work: a theme of city officials struggling with the fact that residents don’t like them, don’t trust them and won’t get on board with their efforts, but they fail to realize that they have created this situation. It is them and their predecessors that have botched the relationship. Why should residents trust city leaders and what have they done to build that trust? This is not to say city leaders aren’t trustworthy, I think quite the opposite in fact. I work with some of the most amazing people who only want to help their community, but don’t realize how their actions have bred more distrust. Trust can only be built through communication and cities aren’t typically very good at communicating. 

It matters how we treat people. This is true for the individual, the corporation, the non-profit and government at every level. People want to feel appreciated, to know their efforts and contributions are recognized and respected. It doesn’t require much, just a little acknowledgment. Had someone simply emailed me and thanked me for my application and explained why I was not a candidate for one of the positions, I would feel completely different. I would feel informed about the process and better understand my position within it. I would have no ill-will at not being asked to join if I only knew why. But to ask for help and then ignore someone that offers it, is insulting. It also ensures I will not respond to requests in the future. Sadly, it pushes me away from being in the civic supporter camp, which is not who I want to be.

So heed this warning: whether you run a city or a non-profit- be respectful when asking someone for their time. Demonstrate that you are prepared and capable of utilizing what you are requesting so your volunteer can feel like their time is being put to good use. Make sure they feel appreciated and also give them an opportunity to feel like they are making a difference. Burnout doesn’t come from asking people to do too much, but by wasting their time. No one wants to sit and listen to reports, no one wants to have endless debates about the same subject. No one volunteers to fulfill your organizations obligations. They do it because they are hoping to feel something. People volunteer in the hope that they will have a chance to make an impact, that their service will provide them with a sense of reward. They do it because they want to make a difference and that makes them feel good about the time they donated and it makes them feel good about themselves. 

This is your obligation as a city leader or as head of a non-profit organization. If you want/need help from volunteers, you must ensure they have an opportunity to have a meaningful experience. They should feel a sense of reward and accomplishment for their contributions. Don’t waste their time, but instead, utilize it to the fullest. Get the most out of them and they will get the most out of their experience. Start by being a good partner in the relationship and then you can expect the same in return. 

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