|Got the T-shirt? Does too many jobs sound familiar?|
This blog is primarily intended for community groups who manage or own a community centre or social centre but it applies equally to any community or wide membership based co-operative or social enterprise.
I've worked with many community based organisations over the years, some small unconstituted charities, some of them established as social enterprises, some on the road to trading, and many more considering trading as a means to increase their income. Some have even been constituted as, shock horror, co-operatives. Regardless of legal form or trading status, one common issue I have come across in very community focused organisations is a lack of capacity. How can a mass membership organisation have so few people involved?
The work of, say, managing the community centre bookings, is carried out by a volunteer (yes, usually one!). The Management Committee are all volunteers, and they don't just meet occasionally to make management decisions, they have to carry out all the administration, book-keeping and implementation of those decisions. And the janitorial issues such as ensuring there are tea bags in the cupboard or clearing up after the children's birthday party the day before. Is it any wonder that the prospect of developing a business plan, marketing strategy or just doing anything more than juggle the existing responsibilities is seen as an unrealistic option?
This high volunteer workload can sometimes be combined with an ever diminishing pool of volunteers willing to take on the legal responsibilities of a Company Director or Charity Trustee along with that day to day workload. The vicious circle starts to accelerate and the less volunteers you have, the more work required, the less desirable the job and the smaller the potential pool of people known to existing volunteers. For that is another problem..... unless there is a full recruitment campaign, committee members tend to recruit from the people they already know.
This can mean that any offer of assistance is viewed as a means to fill not only the volunteer capacity problem but also the lack of faces at the Board meeting. Unfortunately this can scare people off. I have one example in mind where the insistence that someone become a Director of a community organisation before they could volunteer resulted in the loss of a highly skilled individual's time and expertise - another organisation with a more accommodating response won out. It even happened to me! My local community centre were embarking on a more enterprising approach and when I got a leaflet through the door, I realised I could be an asset when it came to business planning, feasibility or financial projections. It's what I do. I contacted the email address outlining my skills and experience and told them that I had skills to offer in a focused fashion but couldn't commit to regularly attending a committee on their chosen day. I also made it clear that meetings in the evening were out as I would be alighting from a train after a 12 hour day just as they would start their meeting. The response? Please come to our next committee meeting.
We have the technology to communicate outside of a fully convened meeting - email, telephone, even letter, so why don't we use them? Of course, if there are decisions to be taken then everything must be done according to your constitutional arrangements, but often much of what is done at community organisation committee meetings is concerned with day to day organisation rather than management decisions. We stuff the meetings full of business and never quite get to the end of the agenda before people rush off or drop off!
So, instead of scaring people off, what's the alternative?
|Do you let people climb the |
"Ladder of Participation" one rung at a time?
- Do they want to rise through the ranks to become Secretary or Treasurer of the Committee?
- Do they love meetings and committees or would they rather drill their own teeth?
- Are they more interested in putting their time to use differently?
- Can they offer a regular commitment?
- Is this too difficult for them?
- What skills do they have to offer?
- What interests?
- Are there people who are time rich and cash poor or cash rich and time poor?
- Are they already activists in the local community who can promote or support your association as they go about their other activities?
- Supporters/Investors - people with money or goods to donate
- Volunteers -people who want to give time regularly
- Activists - people who are already involved in the community and can help promote your association/centre
- Service Users - people who use the building, events or activities
- Customers - people who hire rooms to offer events either as a business or a community activity
- Specialists - people linked to your community with specialist skills you can use occasionally at reasonable (free?) rates such as tradesmen, solicitors
- Committee/ Board Members, Directors or Trustees - people involved in management decisions at regular meetings and legally responsible for the organisation
Why bother with participation?Here's a few thoughts. Focus on participation because:
- It's the right thing to do: You are a community organisation so you should reflect the community you serve. The more opportunities for involvement there are, the more you can know the community is getting what it wants. The more people that are involved in design of services/activities/facilities the more likely your group is to get it right. Some people call this co-production. But if you go back to basics, its about achieving the purpose of the organisation.
- You have a mandate: When it comes to negotiating with public bodies or funders you can honestly say that the community wants what you propose. And if anyone complains, they can get involved and change things. Don't let the naysayers press their nose up against the window - invite them in to sit in front of the fire and talk it over.
- Market intelligence: If you aim to serve the needs of your community then that is your market. Anything that helps you understand the market's desires, interests or needs gives you a competitive advantage and increases your prospects of being sustainable through earned income.
- It lightens the workload: One of the most obvious reasons, and very pragmatic. Remember the old saying "Many hands make light work?". It's true.
- Participation can open up access to investment: If people have a stake in the success of the organisation because it is meeting their needs, providing employment, helping their neighbours or making the place a better place to live they are more likely to support it - especially if they co-own it with the rest of the community and have a direct say in how it is managed (that would be one member one vote democracy, but can also be more subtle influences by being listened to). The Community Shares programme has shown that communities can access finance from within themselves for the purchase of assets.
- You can unlock potential in your community by engaging more people: For example, some community associations I have worked with have acknowledged that they have difficulties in attracting young people or knowing what they might want. At the same time, I have heard them remark that they struggle to keep their website updated. An obvious solution springs to mind - why not start with young person who can take on some of the responsibilities of social media and use their understanding and approach to try and attract more young people? While solving the problem of lacking time or skills to update the website, you bring a fresh pair of eyes into your organisation.
- Wider ownership provides protection: If the association comes under threat from under-involvement, or external threats such as losing the building or unfavourable terms and conditions, your membership share the responsibility for turning things round and they have something to lose.
I can hear the response to my call to arms already "This is all very well, but how can we do it? Where do we start?" Here are some ideas but you can use whatever works as long as you end up with the same outcome of increasing involvement, sharing responsibility and sharing ownership.
Some ideas- As an organisation:
Open up opportunities.
Break down responsibilities into bite size tasks
Consider the different ways that people can get involved. Don't default to the meeting as the only way of getting involved. Not everyone likes reading minutes and tramping out in the rain to sit in a cold room looking at accounts. One way you can do this is with the tool attached below. Analyse your organisation and write down everything that is done or could be done.
- As an individual committee member:Look at your work load. Is there anything you could pass to someone else. You feel valued - share that feeling! You feel overworked? Share that workload. If you had extra capacity think what you could do with that extra time! You can use the same tool to analyse your individual workload.
- As a local community member:
Find out what you can do. Ask if there is anything the group needs help with.
Think about what you have to offer in terms of skills and experience and make an open offer, then see what happens.
Things may not change immediately but we are creating a virtuous cycle (the opposite of a vicious circle). As things get easier, they get easier to make easy. Momentum starts to carry you in the right direction. Tasks get easier as they are shared among more people. Things get done more quickly or cheaper. Activities are more successful because people are interested in them. Everyone shares in the success.
If you need to buy in specialist support for your community association in the areas of business planning, marketing, feasibility or viability then please contact me via nathanbsocialenterprise [at] gmail.com
Human Resources planning tool (mentioned above)
Community Ownership capital grants (April-June 2014) Grants for communities seeking to buy assets
My Community Rights - support, advice and funding for community groups managing assets
Cooperantics - co-operative skills for groups to work together effectively, some free resources on website
Community Shares Unit - for communities considering raising finance from the community to buy assets