Do people cross to the other side of the street when they see you? Have you noticed no one invites you out to TGI Fridays? Do your acquaintances avoid making eye contact with you in public? If you answer yes to any of these questions, you probably are a volunteer badger. No, you are not volunteering to be a badger, you are badgering people to be volunteers. It is an important distinction so I want to make sure we are clear.
Does your volunteer pitch sound like this “Oh hey, Becky, good to see you, by the way, would you have any interest in joining the economic development committee? Well, they meet the first Monday of every month in the chamber board room at 6pm. I can’t really tell you what you will be working on because it changes and because of this, I can’t tell you when you will be done, it’s more of an indefinite commitment. It’s just basically an endless conversation about parking. So can I count you in?”
This is why people avoid you. This is not a strategy to get people involved with your organization or effort. It’s more of a threat. The reason the party planning committee has an easier time stocking up on volunteers is because the details are clear and there is even the possibility of fun. An event has a start time and an end time and the commitment is easy to describe and understand. Asking someone to help coordinate an event is an easy straightforward pitch and hard to say no to.
Asking someone to indefinitely join a committee with ill defined goals is very hard to say yes to. This is why people don’t (and probably shouldn’t) jump in.
It’s not that people don’t want to get involved- because they do. They are just seeking the right way to get involved. The satisfaction of donating time and toil to a cause remains. A person may not realize it that hasn’t participated, but everyone takes pleasure in giving back. Everyone likes to experience a sense of accomplishment. Everyone feels good about themselves when they contribute. When done right, providing someone with a chance to volunteer for their community is to give them a gift. You are giving them an opportunity to feel good about themselves. You are helping them realize a richer and fuller life. These are good things.
But when done wrong, which is more often than not, you are wasting someone’s time. Asking them to sit and listen to reports is nonsense. Asking them to join a loosely defined committee without a clear purpose is rubbish.
While we all might enjoy sitting around chatting with people, that is not how volunteers want to spend their time. No one burns out from hard-work, they burnout when they have the 9th conversation about the community logo design competition. People soon realize their time is being wasted. They begin to understand that they are not making a contribution. They aren’t making a difference, they are just talking and talk, as we know, is cheap.
This is the problem with being beholden to the committee structure. God did not ordain the committee as the only way in which one can engage volunteers. There are no sacred tablets stating that for an individual to give back to their community, thou musteth sit in thine chambers of commerce for a period of no shorter than one hour each month. Committees have their role, there is a time and place, but they are not the answer to everything. They become another way to say something is being done, when nothing is actually being done. The committee is an organization’s way of demonstrating community engagement, but offering up the kind of engagement the community doesn’t really need or want.
The committee is a way of delaying action and a way of trying to get others to handle the decision making. The committee is our tour-guide on the road to apathy.
Resident – “I want to get something done.”
Committee – “Join us in board room, Madam, and we can discuss why that thing can’t be done because someone else tried to do it back in ‘84.”
When it comes to community revitalization, we really don’t need to spend so much time trying to determine what needs done. Can’t we just agree that we know what needs done? Copy successful cities. Copy what your city did 100 years ago. It’s not rocket surgery. Buildings need to be occupied and pretty. Sidewalks need to be wide and well maintained. Roads need to be narrow to slow down cars. Small businesses need to fill up all the first floors. This is what needs done. This is what works and what has always worked. No one needs to do a study to figure this out.
What we need is for people to do the work. If you want to get someone involved in your organization, ask them to pick up trash downtown. Have them to pull weeds. Get them show up to council and speak up for legislation that penalizes vacant property owners. Give people a chance to actually do something.
I don’t want to sit in any meeting and discuss anything. I want to break a sweat making my community nicer and cleaner and trust me, others feel the same. I want to work, not talk. I want the satisfaction of knowing my efforts made my habitat better. Last weekend we had a warm spell and I started doing some work in the backyard. It was hard, I was sweaty, dirty and sore and I loved it. There is little I would rather do than improve myself with labor while also improving my surroundings and the surroundings of the people I care about.
This is what we miss with the blind allegiance to the committee structure. It keeps people from experiencing the satisfaction and pleasure of making a difference. The reward of using your own effort to make your environment better.
It is up to the leadership of your organization to determine what needs done. To ascertain the projects that will improve the community. These decisions should be straightforward, transparent and public. They should be guided by looking to places that are already successful. Those decisions should result in projects. Not committees. A project does not make a committee. A project is a project. Keep it a project.
Determine the projects that will realize the vision. Then populate the projects. The lovely thing about a project, is that it has a start date and end date. It is easy to ask someone to get involved with a project. Better still, it is easier to come up with candidates. Instead of trying to determine who would be best to be part of the design committee, because that committee might work on zoning codes or hanging baskets or signage ordinances or who knows what, but if you have adopted the project of passing vacant property legislation, you can easily come up with names and you know those chosen will be interested in getting involved in that project.
Projects are the jam. They might require meetings, but they might not. A project could be just one person knocking out a task. Projects are simpler to define and easier to populate with volunteers, plus they have defined timelines and goals. And best of all, when project is complete, the volunteers can be appropriately acknowledged and dismissed. They don’t have to be involved forever. They can simply move on with the immense satisfaction of being involved and making a difference. Rejoice!
Kill the committee, please, and embrace the project. Everyone will be happier for it.