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Volunteers: Why Do We Do It?

Over some 40 years I’ve been involved, intermittently, in small group, non-government politics. Because it would be wrong to share names or exact circumstances, I will discuss here only the categories that include all varieties of volunteer committees, boards and officers charged with doing the right thing for those who asked them to lead. Churches, fraternal organizations, little leagues and PTAs come to mind. As we consider the human dynamics most often at work for volunteer leaders, there is an evident triage I would apply:
  1) Good people very often bring themselves forward to serve in these roles, and they do so for idealistic reasons: they feel a sincere obligation to serve; they care about the work at hand; they are honoring their friends and associates by taking personal responsibility. The work brings out their best qualities in leading, sharing and producing results.
  2) The second group will take on the responsibility because it is what they do everyday in the rest of their lives. They come from responsible families and see volunteerism as a useful function. These people do not need special recognition, but see themselves as bound to serve. They are positioned to serve selflessly, even if they are less inspired than the first group.
  3) Inevitably, there will be another profile. These actively seek a leadership position, longing for a circle wherein they will, at last, wield some power. They may well be harboring grudges against old family or business relationships, which have nothing to do with the people with whom they now collaborate. With those subliminal grudges roiling within, these individuals will offer to take on large responsibilities early in their tenure, dig up faults in their predecessors, speak in the first person when rolling out an idea, or exhibit frustration with the slow movement of decision-making by leadership. This, almost, vengeful syndrome may also include a desire to be a successful dealmaker, by cozying up to others like themselves, in order to get their way as they seldom do in the rest of their lives. In the most aggressive profile, these will also seek some favors or inside, personal advantage as a requisite to their service.
I attempt to stay in the middle group. Unlike those from the first group, my sense of a useful obligation fulfilled clearly outweighs any glowing, altruistic vision of mine.
Those in the third group need the most attention, because, by their approach, they demand  it. Their personal mandate begins with assumptions: "This group is not functioning effectively." "Systems of decision and management are deficient." "It is comfortable or complacent, and, thus, fails to make needed changes." "It is oblivious to the discontent of the people it serves." "It's members are not as incisive, experienced, motivated, knowledgeable, tough, capable....as I am...." 
The list goes on, depending upon the needs of the aggressive, new volunteer.
An argument can be made that the principal obstacle to a good beginning, for partnership between an existing group and a new volunteer, is precisely that varying list of personal assumptions. They will have madeup their minds before learning the scope and dynamics of the organization. This puts the new person immediately at odds with other volunteers. This interferes with the ability of all to focus upon the work at hand, to question one another freely and to regularly make tough decisions before moving on to other essential business, as they must.
What is needed, then, is an appropriate period of orientation and familiarization for the new volunteers so that they may disarm themselves, respect the decent intentions of those already serving, and very quickly earn the respect of their fellows. Very soon they will be able to channel their questions, observations and suggestions through the existing dynamic, and, in return, they will have a greatly enhanced position from which to instigate useful, timely and lasting change. Collegial respect follows, and the intangible rewards for service ensue.
If, on the other hand, the actual intent of an individual is to punish or humiliate the existing group, hardly any effort by them is required; negativism, gossip, rumor, flagrant instigation within the served community--all of these are very simple for one individual to accomplish. In these cases, it is incumbent upon the majority to neutralize or remove the offender, whichever is available under organization rules. Coaching and, thus, changing the behavior of an adult by means of such limited contact as comes with monthly meetings and strings of email, will not work in this setting. Because there is always work to be done that requires full attention, removal of actively negative, recalcitrant individuals is necessary, before great damage is done.
The best outcome for aggressive newcomers is that they quickly spend their negative energy, look around at fellow volunteers, here, who refuse to be pushed around and continue to serve. Quick learners will adapt their behavior, and begin to serve.  This scenario is, in my experience, rare, but it can happen. More often, the burning issues motivating newcomers flame out at about the time they decide they don't feel like serving anymore. They quit.
It is also worth noting that group one, the idealists, can present a profile similar to the the aggressive third group. Precisely because they care deeply, they may be inclined to press hard early on, also without the benefit of acclimation. This is why, for both the angry and the inspired, there must be immediate invitation and encouragement to learn and to join, positively, the mission at hand. There is a requirement upon the rest of the volunteers to keep an open mind and to be available to facilitate their integration.
And the cycle, inevitably, repeats with each election or appointment designed to bring in fresh perspective and new energy. 
It must also be said that a culture of discord may be in place in the existing group. Bad blood has become the norm, and high turnover is expected, with no vision toward calming things down. At times like these, groups one and two need to step up and patiently engineer calm and focus. This begins by putting oneself forward for service, having no desire or illusions of personal benefit or attention or credit. 
This outline, of course, does not comprise the full scope of this topic. Yet, in the end, the battle to champion significance over pettiness is part of any group endeavor. Regularly reviewing our individual motives, therefore, will always be useful.


Posted on Saturday, November 24, 2012 at 07:59AM by Registered CommenterCoEternity | CommentsPost a Comment

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