Category Archives: volunteers

Choosing Leaders is like Choosing What to Eat: Fruit or a Twinkie?

Good leaders are as important for a healthy organization as good food is for a healthy body. Would you trust the Twinkie King to be a leader for your group?

Good leaders are as important for a healthy organization as good food is for a healthy body. Would you trust the Twinkie King to be a leader for your group?

I’ve been writing about the need to be careful in choosing who to develop as a leader.

Grassroots leaders are what nourish your organization. Just like you need to eat food that will keep you healthy, you need to recruit and develop leaders that will keep your organization healthy.

This can be tough. It’s often easier to eat a Twinkie than to eat a carrot. Choose the leaders that will nourish your organization. You’ll be healthier for it.

Not a leader doesn’t mean not valuable

I recently blogged on the topic that not everyone is cut out to be a leader.

Just to be clear, just because someone isn’t a leader does not mean they are not valuable.

That volunteer who comes in every week for data entry, she may not be a leader, but she sure is valuable.

That reliable phone banker who will come in and call through a list of names for an action alert? He may not be a leader, but he sure is valuable.

In fact, some of your leaders may be train wrecks when it comes to data entry. You might not want to let them come close to your computers.

Building a movement or an organization takes a variety of skills and people. Value them all.

The Heart of Organizing: From intellectual agreement to collective action

In 1906, Mohandas Gandhi and 3,000 other Indians living in South Africa met to oppose a law that would have required all Indians to be fingerprinted and to carry residency permits, as if they were criminals.

You know how most meetings like this go. Everyone in the room agrees it is wrong.
Maybe they pass a resolution.
Sometimes someone will take action on their own.

And often as not, nothing really changed.

At this meeting, through, something different happened. Rather than just passing a resolution calling for every Indian in South Africa to resist the Ordinance, Sheth Haji Habib suggested that they take things a step farther–that everyone present make a vow before God that they would go to jail rather than submit to the resolution.

Everyone stood up to take the vow.

This is the pinnacle of community organizing: to mobilize a group of people to take a smart, principled action, even at great risk to themselves.

What does this mean for modern-day organizers? Look beyond just intellectual agreement or statements of support. Seek and ask for active support.

It is that active support that will change the world.

The power of enthusiastic support

I’ve already told you how I think part of what makes Lynn Rosetto-Casper a great radio host is that she is a dream feeder.

I saw again the power of enthusiasm in getting people engaged.

Recently I attended a house meeting for a political campaign, and I was amazed to see how supportive and enthusiastic the organizer was.

When someone suggested and idea for how they could support the campaign, the organizer gushed with positive feedback and encouragement for the volunteer to take on that project.

Do you want to register voters in a senior center? That’s a great idea! Good thinking! Go for it.

Even I found myself committing to more than I had bargained for at the meeting. I started out planning just to say that I would run the Detroit Marathon as a fundraiser for this candidate. Soon, the organizer had me thinking bigger about how we could recruit other runners to do the same thing and to make it an event.

How can you get more out of your volunteers and activists? Cheer them on!

Make the ask feel special

invitation by tracyhunger on flickr.comIn You Don’t Have to Do It Alone, the authors share the following story:

Julie [one of the co-authors] once received an invitation to a garden party at Buckingham Palace hosted by the Queen of England. Yes, that Queen of England. Julie had to sign a receipt when the invitation was delivered. The envelope was stamped front and back with “Lord Chamberlain Buckingham Palace.” It was addressed in beautifully handwritten calligraphic script. The message on the card itself was embossed in gold. It began with the words, “The Lord Chamberlain is commanded to invite . . . “

Talk about a special invitation. Julie still has it. The Queen, and the Lord Chamberlain, could be sure she would attend.

How different is that from the mass email “could anybody help with . . .”

This over-the-top invitation makes a point that you and I can learn from, even if we don’t have a Lord Chamberlain to command.

Your best chance of getting somebody to say “yes” is to make sure that the ask feels special to them.

There are many ways to do that: a personal phone call, a specially-printed invitation, a phone call from a big-wig. Even just personalizing your email so they know you wrote to them and not to fifty people at once.

You may not have gold-embossed stationary, but you can still make someone feel special.

And when you make someone feel special, they are more likely to say “yes.”


bonus observation: Did you notice the specific, compelling details in the description of the invitation? Wasn’t that more impressive than a bland “Julie received an invitation from the Queen of England”? When writing, these kinds of concrete details help paint a vivid picture in your reader’s mind. It’s worth recording them.

The danger of homogenaity

Photo by Daveybot on FlickrJust a quick follow up to my post on who to invite: it’s downright dangerous to have decisions made by people who all think the same.

First, their decisions won’t have the strength of multiple viewpoints.

Second, the decisions will face more opposition when they come to the larger group.

I saw this recently when the City of Ann Arbor was considering creating a greenway through the city. In good municipal fashion, they convened a greenway committee.

Who signed up to be on the greenway committee? The people who are passionate about a greenway!

Now I’m not a greenway advocate, so when I look at their decision, it doesn’t have legitimacy to me, because I don’t think it really looked at the issue in a comprehensive way.

Another example: a local Catholic parish used to have a Life Committee (or some such group). In Catholic social teaching, the sanctity of life leads the Catholic Church to oppose many things, not just abortion and euthanasia but also war, poverty, and the death penalty.

But the Life Committee just cared about abortion.

They were a faction.

And they lost legitimacy for it.

So, if you want to create a faction that will promote a narrow perspective (and there is value in this, to be sure), by all means, only seek out the hard-core fringe of people who would volunteer themselves to be on that committee.

But if you want sound and balanced decisions that will have more legitimacy in the wider community, then you have a harder task ahead. Then you need to recruit not just people who already agree with you and think like you, you have to recruit people with different perspecitves.

And then the hard work begins…

you have to respect those different perspectives.

Who should you invite to collaborate?

One of the things that I like about You Don’t Have to Do it Alone is that it invites us to be thoughtful about the things we often decide on auto-pilot.

For example, who we invite to participate in a project?

Often the answer is “whoever we can get.”

You don’t have to however challenges us to:

  • include more people
  • consider what types of people you need to include
  • consider when in the project you need what types of collaboration.

In terms of the considering the types of people to involve, the authors identify six categories of people to include:

  • people who care;
  • people with authority and responsibility;
  • people with information and expertise;
  • people who will be personally affected;
  • people with diverse points of view;
  • people who are considered troublemakers

I have a board member who is an expert at this. She has an excellent grasp on the fact that difficult decisions need to include a variety of people: people with different perspectives, people who know the topic, people who can get it done.

She also knows that you can sometimes prevent a lot of opposition from troublemakes by getting their involvement as the start. That way they aren’t opposing you at the finish.

And as a bonus, you often get a better, more informed decision by including them.

What kind of help do you need?

"I want to get lost" by Xabier.M on flicr.comLast month I took a personal mini-retreat and learned came to an important realization.

I don’t know how to ask for help. I tend to insist on doing everything myself.

So, true to form, I’ve started to read about how I can do better on this. Yes, that’s right. I’m not asking for help to learn to ask for help. I’m doing it myself when it comes to getting over my obsession with doing it myself.

And I’ve found the perfect book for me, or at least the perfect book title: You don’t have to do it alone.

The authors talk about how to create effective involvement in projects, and the first step the identify is to ask, “What kind of involvement do you need?

They identify 4 types:

  1. Know-how involvement: Somebody knows how to do something you don’t know how to do, or they know how to do it better, and you need their know-how.
  2. Arms and legs involvement: Think of a barn-raising, or a park cleanup. You need help to carry out a task that is just too big for you. Or maybe it’s not the best use of your time to do it all yourself.
  3. Care and commitment involvement: The other common phrase here is “buy-in.” This kind of involvement is to ensure that people are on-board and committed to a chosen decision, project, or endeavor.
  4. Teaching and learning involvement: this is the king of involvement where people learn and grow and develop in their ability to complete a task or shoulder a responsibility. This kind of involvement is a big reason why I think it’s important for ICPJ to have interns.

Those are the 4 involvement types listed in the book. To them I would add a fifth: Leadership involvement. Sometimes there’s a project that just won’t happen unless someone else takes the reigns and says, “I’ll make sure this moves forward.”

At ICPJ, as a volunteer-based organization, many of our projects depend on volunteer leadership involvement.

I find this taxonomy useful because it helps me thinks more clearly about what kind of involvement do I need in various projects. In fundraising, it’s a bit of all of them. With structure changes and strategic planning, it’s less about arms and legs and more about care and commitment. Knowing that helps me fine-tune how I approach getting involvement in each of my projects.

And yes, so far I still figure that out on my own.

Be as specific in your praise as you are your criticism.

Dog balancing cup by SuperFantastic at“Overall we’re very satisfied with your work…”

Even when this statement is true, it sounds hollow and vague.

But the critiques that follow it are always specific, and often painful to hear.

I know, I often use variations of this line myself.

But when it’s used on me, I realize how it comes off as an empty platitude.

How should you respond?

One way is to avoid giving criticism or corrective feedback. There are some who advocate this path. They say you’ll get farther with only praise than you ever would with only criticism.

If you look through my blog posts, you’ll see I’m far too opinionated for that approach to work for me.

There is another alternative, though. You can make your praise just as specific as your criticism.

Instead of saying “you did a good job chairing that meeting (followed by the inevitable “but…”),” you can say, “I thought you did an excellent job giving the group time for informal discussion and then gently bringing us back on topic.”

Yes, it takes more thought to pick out specific examples of what to praise, but it’s much more meaningful for the person who hears it.

And if we want their continued support, we owe them this extra work.

And we especially owe it to them if we’re going to offer corrective feedback.

Choice: Empowering or Overwhelming?

Last post (I think) on Allison Fine’s book Momentum: Ignititing Social Change in the Connected Age. She writes:

To reach the broadest possible audience, organizations should present a continuum of opportunities and ways for people to participate from lot to high intensity.


Except when it isn’t.

Too many opportunities can overwhelm rather than empower.

Consider the Paradox of Choice.

Consider the Big Red Fez.

Consider Discovering the Activation Point.

Consider Don’t Make Me Think.

In a world where people are overwhelmed by choices, sometimes the best way to help a potential supporter take action is to give them a single simple path to action.

Sign this petition.

Donate $25 dollars.

Click to send a letter.

When I volunteer at a food bank, I don’t want to be asked to plan nutrition plans or to analyze the opportunities and dangers of the corporate food system to both cause and alleviate hunger. I want to be told, “put those cans from that pallet onto this shelf.”

Allison Fine is right, you need to have the door open to higher levels of involvement. It also helps to spell out what these higher levels could be.

But it’s also important to save your supporters from the load of always playing “choose your own adventure” when it comes to getting involved.


Since this is my last post on Momentum, let me also share a few final words of overview. It’s an excellent book that will make you think about how the hyper-connectivity of today’s world affects the social sector.

Allison Fine is a true believer here, and as such she sometimes goes overboard. In particular, she tends to overplay the power of connection technology and underplay the continued relevance of existing tools. For example, when she says “throw out your direct mail handbook,” well, that’s just plain foolishness. For most organizations online giving is a small fraction of direct mail giving, and that will be the case for some time to come.

This over-zealousness may be vital for her to make her point. A less enthusiastic book would be less thought-provoking, not to mention less interesting.