Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Thankless Task

Dear Readers,
What follows is a draft of a letter or op ed piece I am working on. I would love to have your comments, thoughts, and additions.

Every organization I have ever belonged to has the same problem. Not enough volunteers to hold club offices, chair events and and do the hands on grunt work that keeps a group running. The same 10 to 20% of the group are always the only people that will commit to doing anything and they are tired and on the verge of burnout. Why is this so pervasive and what do we do about it?

Expectations guide our choices.The basis of behavioral science is that people tend to repeat tasks that are pleasurable and avoid those that are unpleasant. If we hear people talking about how difficult their job is and saying they will never do it again,we choose not to put ourselves in their shoes.If we do something once and don't enjoy it or don't feel needed and included, we don't repeat it. If we hear people talking about how much fun they have, we are inclined to join them.If we know other members are inflexible we may not wish to work with them.

Uncertainty keeps people on the sidelines. What will the duties be and how much time will it take are questions that need to be answered up front. How many meetings and how far from home are they? Are the requirements streamlined and actually necessary or are they just the way things were done last year? How married are we to the way things have been done before? What features of the event are actually written in stone and which ones are flexible?

Will volunteers actually have responsibility or will every decision they make be reviewed and debated ? In most cases a board needs to know if an event is on time, on budget, and if there are unmet needs. They don't need to know what color the tablecloths will be and how that was decided. Meetings should have agendas based on these simple standards that actually delegate decisions and accept that committees can change things to suit their best judgement. This would cut meeting times considerably.

Everyone needs to recognize that events planned and executed by volunteers will never be perfect and that you can't have everything the way you want it. Accept that people are tired and stressed and may act that way. What really makes a  task thankless is people that don't remember to say thanks to the folks who do the work. If what they did was not all you thought it could have been, thank them anyway, they showed up and made the effort.

Finally, we all need to lighten up and relax a little. We generally join with groups of like minded people to have fun, not to pad our resume or prepare to run for office. If things stop being fun we need to make them fun again or stop doing them. Like voting, if you don't volunteer don't complain about those who do.


  1. A very timely post for me, I attended my first board meeting for the Chatham Artists Guild last night and it went very smoothly except for people stepping up to be president. No one wanted the job and we needed a new president. Finally a very perfect for the job woman stepped up, reluctantly but she will be so great. This is a good group and many of the artists are staying on the same committees they have niched themselves into, but there are, like you said, the same group of folks that do everything while those that sit back and benefit from their efforts do nothing. In this guild you have the choice to pay a higher membership for doing nothing, that still doesn't help those that do all the work! Some people are just not going to be volunteers! I did notice that the current president brought a very specific agenda and stuck to it, the meeting was over in 1 1/2 hours, with 15 people there voting and making decisions. I think that was pretty good. Agendas, yes!

  2. Somehow this made me think about pledge drives for public radio. If they never went on air with the drives, only a few people would remember to donate. I think it's similar with volunteers in an organization. Many folks need to be asked personally. I was personally asked the first time I served as Secretary for you know what. Similarly, I suckered I mean personally asked my friend Ginger to be the treasurer when we needed one.

  3. Hi Dennis:
    Can I quote you in our newsletter for our church? We sure sound just like you've described, and of course we've said it all before, but you put it very wisely this time. Besides, coming from an "outsider" may make someone listen! Let me know, ok?

  4. Feel free Barb. Thanks for reading.


Comments are the currency of the Blogosphere. Remember to tip your waiter.