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Citizen Toolkit

Preventing Grassroots Wilt

Tips for avoiding burnout along the volunteer trail.

By Charles Dobson 19 Dec 2003 |
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Fourth of a ten part series from The Troublemaker's Teaparty, A Manual for Effective Citizen Action.

Much of the literature on citizen participation is far too optimistic. An overly optimistic outlook encourages people to step out of private life, but it also sets them up to become quickly discouraged. This section looks at the forces that undermine grassroots groups and active citizens and suggests practical ways to overcome these sources of "grassroots wilt."  The Troublemaker's Teaparty addresses ten different sources of grassroots wilt. This excerpt covers the two most important, lack of time and self-destructive group behaviour.

The Time Crunch: Some solutions

In 1999, the U.S. League of Women Voters commissioned a study titled Working Together: Community Involvement in America that consisted of one-to-one interviews with activists, group interviews with citizens in four cities, and a national survey. According to the LWV study, the main barrier to citizen participation is lack of time. 

Provide more scheduling alternatives

The long-term solution to the problem is to convince people to reduce consumption.  Consuming less means people can work less and that increases the amount of their discretionary free time. The short-term solution is to figure out new ways of fitting community contributions into hectic lives. The study suggests the following scheduling alternatives:

Emphasize the value of each person's contribution

The study points out that, "given their busy schedules, people want reassurance that their work will make a difference and that their time will not be wasted. Organizers should:

"The two strongest messages out of the survey include one message that urges people to take ownership of their communities, get involved and make a difference, and another message that talks about joining together to make a practical, tangible difference in the lives of those that are most important -- our families, children, friends and neighbors."

Organize around children

In the LWV survey the highest number (a quarter of respondents) said the helping, mentoring, and coaching of children and youth would be the most likely incentive to make them become involved in their community.

Provide info about your group and its activities

The second most important issue affecting involvement is whether or not a project is worthy of involvement. People want to know whether the project and the people behind it are legitimate and competent. Disengaged participants want an honest and "fearless" leader with organizational and planning skills, enthusiasm, and a good attitude.

Self-destructive Group Behavior: Some causes

One largely overlooked cause of low levels of citizen involvement is the internal dynamics of all-volunteer groups. Countless grassroots initiatives wither and die without achieving anything because members don't pay attention to what can go wrong inside a group. Many citizens groups quite simply drive away their most able members. In a typical arc, a new member will step forward to work with others on some public issue, last for a relatively short time, then disappear back into private life, never to be heard from again. A glimmer of green, then nothing. What causes this kind of wilt?

Too little fun

Long-term activists have fun when they get together. Many enjoy making fun of people in power. People who take themselves too seriously can turn any task into a chore. Getting together should feel more like recreation than work, no matter how serious the issue. Those who understand citizen involvement stress the importance of having fun over all other considerations.

Too much emphasis on organization and too little on mission

Hoping to become more organized, many small groups create little bureaucracies that drain everyone's energy. Often so much effort goes into maintaining the organization that there is little left to pursue the reason for creating an organization in the first place. Beware of boards, forming a non-profit society, writing grant applications, fundraising, annual reports, Robert's Rules of Order, and the other components of organizational quicksand.

Too many meetings and too little action

Most people would prefer to act on something concrete rather than sit at a meeting wrangling or trying to "reach consensus." Some meetings are necessary, but try to keep the frequency down, the length short, and the number of participants small.

Too much deciding and too little creating

Every advocacy group needs to generate options for action. To do this well, participants need to switch off their Voice of Judgment and brainstorm. Unfortunately, when people get together for a meeting they usually switch on their Voice of Judgment in preparation for decision making. If they remain in this critical frame of mind, they will generate few options for action, nothing will get done, and no one will have any fun.

Too many people

Because of the emphasis on getting more people involved, many people feel that large groups are better than small groups. This is a mistake. A working group should not exceed ten people. A small group does not preclude working with others under the umbrella of a larger group; nor does it prelude communicating with larger numbers of people through e-mail networks, special events, and annual conventions.

Too little contact

It is hard for people to maintain a working relationship if they rarely see one another. Once a month is the usual minimum for long-term projects. Once a week is best for short-term, hot projects. It also fits into the way people schedule other activities. If regular face-to-face contact is difficult, regular phone calls or e-mail may work as a weak substitute. Community groups need to pay more attention to unplanned contact. Much of it used to occur on the street before cars took over. Today it occurs in the workplace, in places designed to enhance community such as co-housing, and, in Great Britain, in pubs.

Too much to do

Groups of nine or less can often manage on personal resources, but as group size increases and there is more to do, a shortage of money and time often leads to spiraling decline. Without paid staff there is no one to look after organizational housekeeping and no one to train, manage, and reward volunteers. As people disappear, many grassroots leaders burn out trying to do more and more themselves. A lack of resources does not mean giving up. It does mean keeping your group small; inventing clever ways to effectively use time, connections, and skills; and, most important, matching what you do to resources you have available.

Charles Dobson teaches creative problem solving at the Emily Carr Insitute of Art & Design in Vancouver and is author of The Troublemaker's Teaparty, A Manual for Effective Citizen Action, available from bookstores and New Society Publishers.  [Tyee]

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