Weed It and Reap – Project Management Tips for Grassroots Organizations

The term “grass roots marketing” conjures an image of unexpected, though positive growth. Yet, like any other growth, the grass in grass roots emerges from a seed. It can be extinguished by weeds, or by lack of proper watering.

I was brought up with a strong ethic of community service, with a healthy dose of idealism thrown in. So I have spent much of my life engaged in volunteer activities that are meant to make the world a better place. No matter what else I’ve done, I’ve done my best to help locally and globally, such as acting as program chair for my local MENSA organization, running computer user groups, helping with open-source organizations, or contributing my time on community boards.

So, as I discussed earlier in Tips for Project Management in Volunteer Organizations, I have learned quite a bit about what it takes to motivate someone to contribute their time, and to be enthusiastic about doing so. In this article, I add a few more tips that might help you in your own grass roots endeavors – whether it’s your local church group or garden club.

Keeping the purpose in mind

Remember: We exist to help one another. Grass roots organizations don’t rely on a vendor for answers, for support, or for permission to exist. We’re all just people who depend on one another (sometimes stumbling along awkwardly) as we discover together how to get the most out of an operating system, to put on the best musical the town’s ever seen, or to learn which plants grow best in desert soil. Or, perhaps, we just want to find a community of people who share our interests.

More than anything else, in grass roots organizations it’s our ability to help one another that matters. An organization with that viewpoint as its ultimate purpose isn’t guaranteed success – but it helps quite a bit.

“Help” can take several forms. It might be providing technical assistance to a member with a multimedia problem. It may be educational activities, such as planning “how it works” presentations. It might be community assistance, working with a local school system to share the joys of your shared passion.

The danger isn’t that the group will forget, one day, and find itself supporting a competing social policy or putting the Food SIG ahead of its purpose of Helping. The danger is in a slow distraction from the group’s goals. The same volunteers do the same job, month after month, for instance, so the rest of the membership “lets them” continue… until those volunteers get burnt out or they move away or they can’t do it any more. Organizations in which the officers do everything, year after year, create a stagnant group in which nobody learns, nothing changes, and the joy eventually goes out of the creation. (Some exceptions exist, but they have other factors at play).

Because grass roots organizations are necessarily all-volunteer, the work gets done after hours, and it’s usually given a low priority. In our society, the most obvious “reward” is money; when money isn’t the motivation to energize a volunteer worker, something else has to kick in. In the best cases, volunteer organizations truly have the good of the community at heart. When pressed to name other incentives, they view their service as a good way to earn non-financial rewards such as resume-class experience. In the worst cases, the volunteer’s motivation becomes power. Strangely enough, the smaller the “pond,” the more power-hungry an individual may become.

Not always personal power

It’s not always personal power, though. I knew one volunteer organization’s newsletter editor who did a terrible job, but the president said, “We can’t fire him; it’d hurt his feelings.” (That was back in the days when a print newsletter was a priority.) That organization no longer existed to serve its membership and to provide the best possible Help available. The group’s purpose came to reflect the feelings of only one guy, at the expense of hundreds of paying members. I was unsurprised when I was told the organization shrank to a third of its previous size.

At the top of the organization (such as the board of directors), serving the members must be the overriding purpose. It can’t happen at the personal expense of the volunteer (losing someone to burnout is worse than an occasional missed board meeting), but excuses of “We’re just volunteers, after all,” aren’t acceptable. You might be a volunteer, but in most nonprofit organizations the membership paid real cash money. The way you help them – and the group – is to ensure that they get their money’s worth. Otherwise, they won’t bother to renew, or they’ll quit attending meetings, or they’ll disappear from the group at large.

The folks at the top must never forget that they exist to serve the membership. When things go wrong, the first sign is that matters are handled for the convenience of the board (or other organizing body). Be open with everyone in the organization, despite the added hassle it creates. The organization only exists for the benefit of the members; the board is the servant, not the other way around.

Never refuse help

Some group members want to help, but they’re really not right for the job. A member whose writing abilities can charitably be described as “stinks” offers to be the newsletter editor, or an undiplomatic but well-intentioned person volunteers to act as PR chair. Steer them away from jobs that are clearly unsuited to them, but never say, “We don’t need your help.” Doing so will embitter them, and they’ll never offer assistance again. Often, they’ll drop out of the group, because every member wants to feel that his contribution matters. For most volunteers, remember, “I want to make a difference” is a strong motivation. If you say, “We don’t need your help,” they hear, “We don’t want you to contribute.”

Instead, say, “We have that under control… but you’d be really great at this instead.” Re-purpose the member, but never refuse their help.

Run it like a business

It’s anathema to some folks to think this, but every volunteer-run organization is a business, even if no money changes hands.

For-profit businesses have to concern themselves with finding new customers (also called marketing), with providing goods and services to customers (a.k.a. members), and with the day-to-day housekeeping of bill-paying and ensuring that more money comes in than goes out. Grass roots organizations may not care about the growth of the bank balance, but everything else applies. They have to work to keep existing members and to entice new ones. They must run events, produce a newsletter, manage a website, or provide other services. They have to find a meeting space and manage the membership database. This is the mundane side of grass roots, mind you, but it’s completely necessary. Even if you get everything else right – if you forget to send out the renewal notices you’ll lose members, and you’ll create ill will besides.

Plus when “you” do any of these things, it has to be from a “we” attitude.

Try We Attitude

For a grass roots organization to succeed, it’s not necessary to be relentlessly upbeat. A fake cheerfulness palls quickly. But it’s important not to whine, either as an individual or as a group. Remember that people participate only because it’s fun and because they get value from it. If it becomes a burden, they’ll stay away in droves.

It can be tough to stay positive all the time, but it’s extremely important that the group reject an us-versus-them viewpoint. That way leads to anger (not to mention the Dark Side of The Force) and it’s never productive. Instead, put your attention on building bridges, not burning them. Learn the value of alliances, whether it’s with other related organizations, with the local community, or with the press. Demonstrate how your skills or knowledge or capabilities can help them, and let it be secondary that the alliance benefits your grass roots organization, too.

But all of these recommendations pale when compared to this last rule: You can never say “Thank you” often enough.

Going on gratitude

Grass roots volunteers participate because they want to contribute. The only reward they get is the knowledge that their effort made a difference. That’s why it’s overwhelmingly important to recognize what people do, to say thank you, and to let them know that they made the world just a little bit better. Among the best things you can say of the human race is that individuals truly want to help one another, and telling someone he’s done so is the most effective way to get more “work” out of him.

In fact, this is the whole of my “gift” for getting people to volunteer. I notice what people know, and what they’re good at. I praise them for the achievement. And then I ask them to share the wisdom or skill with other members. Because my praise is honest and accurate, very few people manage to say No. Perhaps you think this is obvious. We all love praise, after all. But I tell you that it’s the most powerful force in a grass roots organization’s arsenal.

That appreciation shouldn’t be reserved for only big projects. They’re important, of course, but it’s the tiny actions, day by day, that make a long term difference in the survival of the group. People do the right thing for the right reason, and telling them that you noticed can make a world of difference. Every grass roots group lives and breathes by what each of us contribute.

As ye sow

It’s not always easy to make a grass roots organization survive. Because all participants are inherently equal, and everyone deserves a say, the group can be an anarchy. But then, a profusion of wildflowers is beautiful even if it’s uncontrollable and unplanned.

Water your group well with “thank you” and “you made a difference,” and weed out the distractions… and you’ll have a garden full of possibilities.














Esther Schindler

Esther Schindler has been writing about computers and business topics since the early 1990s. You’ve seen Esther’s byline in prominent IT publications, such as CIO.com, IT World, and IEEE Spectrum. Her name is on the cover of about a dozen books, including most recently The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Twitter Marketing. You can follow her on Twitter @estherschindler and circle her on Google+, where she will keep you up to date on software trends, her cats, and baseball shenanigans.

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