So you want to make a difference: 7 Strategies for community organizers

I’ve seen it again and again, and despite knowing better, I’ve fallen victim to it myself more times than I care to admit.  Working as a community organizer –  in whatever field, paid or volunteer – vision, dreams, and ambitions almost always outstrip resources and abilities.  After years martyring themselves over small victories and large losses, some burn out, some break down, and some leave in frustration and bitterness.  Even worse, some stay in frustration and bitterness, angry, exhausted, and negative, pulling the organization down with them.  It’s a nasty thing to do to yourself, and a bad way to treat a good dream.

What I consider the greater crime, however, is the culture of wear-down that perpetuates this cycle.  How many terrific, smart, passionate people get so worn down by the demands, expectations, disappointments, losses, and low-income of a career in the community and non-profit sector that we lose them after a few years, with a net loss to the community of invaluable experience, momentum, and expertise?  As people interested in the health and vibrancy of our community, it’s poor behaviour to demand that our volunteers and employees sacrifice their own to the cause.

Whenever I hear the adjective “tireless” applied to a community worker, hear jovial references to their round-the-clock presence at the office, see their time and work undervalued, I worry about the future of the organization they work for.  It’s a process of attrition, a death by a thousand cuts.  The fall may be slow, but it’s inevitable.

A community’s greatest asset is its skilled workers; protect yourself, and the important work you do, by avoiding the pitfalls.

I’ve given this a lot of thought, having been involved in the community sector a long time, and often fallen into the traps described above.  As paid staff, volunteer, and Board member, I’ve both asked too much and been asked too much.  There’s not a mistake on this list I haven’t made myself, sometimes over and again.  So, as much to remind myself as to educate anyone else, here are seven strategies for making a positive difference in both your own life, and that of the community!

1. Know why you’re joining the organization.

Yes, it looks good on a resume to say you sat on a Board of Directors or volunteer, but are you prepared to do the work?  To pay close attention to the financial spreadsheets?  To ask questions, and challenge more established people when you have doubts or concerns? To do more than to merely show up?  Sitting there mouth closed and eyes glassy does no one any good, whether you’re a ticket-taker or a member-at-large.

2. Know you have the time to devote to the organization.

You see something you feel is important, and you want to help, and before you know it you’ve committed yourself to a major role without stopping to see if there’s room in your year for another commitment.  Too many times we spread ourselves too thin to be of any use to anyone, and achieve less because we aim for more.

3. Understand and share the goals of the organization you’re joining.

An argument about what route to take from here to Toronto is resolvable, but when they want to get to Toronto and you want to get to Mumbai, there’s no way to reconcile except by force.   There can be as many goals in any given organization as there are people and ideas; read the bylaws, vision, mandate and goals of the organization and find out when those were last reviewed and how often they’re referred to by the Board.  If the group hasn’t looked at them in a few years, or they seem unfocused or unreasonable or don’t represent the current organization or your own goals, steer clear.

4. Be honest and upfront; provide and review information.

By supporting your information and experience with confidence, and being familiar with the issues at hand, you clear the way for reasonable debate and informed decision-making.  The habits of making decisions in the heat of the moment, folding to peer pressure, charismatic persuasion, or the desire to avoid responsibility or confrontation can become endemic to an organization and pretty much always result in poor leadership and bad management.

5. Be firm in defence of your own time, health, and sanity.  Be firm in the defence of other people’s time, health, and sanity.

As an employee, be sure that your understanding of your hours and your boss’/Board’s understanding of your hours is firm – most non-profits expect their staff to work more than they’re being paid for, or demand more than is possible in the time available, which is a certain recipe for burnout.  As a volunteer, particularly a Board member, make sure that what you and other volunteers are asking of each other and your employees is reasonable and conforms to existing labour laws (you’d be surprised at how many community organizations have no clue about employee rights).  Steer your organization towards a stable working environment; try to find ways to offer benefits, decent pay, and reasonable expectations to employees.

6. Choose your battles carefully; outline your strategy to the people you work with.

Organizations, like individuals, are likely to over-extend themselves.  Is it more important to run a fund-raising event or write a grant?  Which items of your programming are most essential and important and which are continued due more to tradition or habit than demonstrable impact?  Is the org accomplishing what it exists to do? Assess the work you’re doing, and try to focus on the  strategies which best support the goals of the organization.  Withdraw from commitments or programming which take more than they give back, even if it means a loss of funding.  Consult with your team, create a strategy, and maintain a dialogue so that everyone involved in the organization and served by it can access and understand the choices that are being made.

7. Monitor your own engagement.

Sure, you started out passionate, committed, and invested, but that was then.  Have your goals changed since you’ve gotten involved with the organization?  Do you find yourself less interested in this work than you were?  Do you think your time would be better spent elsewhere? Don’t feel guilty about withdrawing if you’re no longer engaged in the work; some people can sustain 25 years of interest and passion, but they’re in the minority.  Change when you need to.