What can a group do when long-time leaders move on, burn out, get older, or simply find themselves unable or unwilling to serve? Is dissolution the only reasonable response?
On our discussion list and via email, group leaders provided insightful responses for a group struggling with this question. Their suggestions included spreading the work around, aligning the person to the task, sorting needs from niceties, publicity, appreciation and humor. While each of these may seem easier said than done, leaders offered concrete ideas to support their suggestions.
A thank you to participants is at the end of this guide. If I have missed a contributor, please let me know.
Publicizing Your Group
Bringing in new members and keeping marginal members informed can increase participation. Publicity might include getting articles in the local media. This can be easy because local media is often looking for inexpensive or pre-written content. High schools and colleges can be another place where publicity pays off: put up posters, advertise in school publications, let school instructors know that guests are welcome, or even invite a tech club to your next meeting. Consider cross-promotions with other groups or organizations.
Pay attention to publicizing your group to nonparticipating members as well; a strong supporting mailing list / membership can provide a way for new leaders to emerge even as the core group meets. Don’t assume that a member who does not attend meetings is a member who does not want to be involved. They won’t know where they might fit in if you do not keep them informed about opportunities and activities.
Aligning the Person to the Task
Here is one all-too-common scenario: Leaders ask for a volunteer for a given task. No member volunteers, so the leaders ask again and worry that nobody will step forward. Sooner or later leaders press a member to do the task; surely any volunteer is worse than no volunteer? The results? The “voluntold” member may feel resentful, feeling that the task is clearly undesirable (nobody volunteered) and the member has been taken for granted (clearly they were the best person for an undesirable task).
The solution? Connect on a personal level. Keep an eye out for possible talent in your group, whether it is the person with a ready joke, the quiet artist who might do a wonderful job with event posters, the people-person who might happily collect survey results, or the member who seems to love showing how to accomplish a task. Ask yourself what the volunteer will get out of the assignment: a sense of personal fulfillment, a new adventure, a chance to meet new people or learn a new skill. Sometimes delegating authority to a group (or asking a volunteer to assemble a team) can bring an excitement to a task. Better yet, ask that person to partner with you on a project.
Having a short job description and a separate detailed “How To” for each task can lead to volunteer success.
Alternatively, consider drawing presenters’ names from a hat: the task will feel like shouldering part of a shared group effort instead of being picked on for a job. The winner does not have to present, simply be responsible for making sure that a presentation is ready for a specified meeting.
In every situation, make sure your request is personal, has a specific end point and leaves the volunteer proud of his or her accomplishments. Incremental success breeds additional involvement.
Sorting the Need-To-Haves from the Nice-To-Haves
In some cases, the pain of getting everything done is self-inflicted. Ask yourself if your group doing something because it is needed or “because our group always does it.” More than one person noted that a shift in approach can lead to less stress and better outcomes. For example, one group stopped sending newsletters in favor of a discussion list, while another shifted to a blog format with no set publication dates, and a third decided to rely on Facebook posts to disseminate group news. No one approach or group format is the best. Decide what matters and concentrate your efforts where they will have the most impact.
Appreciation covers far more than saying “thank you” to team members. One writer mentioned volunteering for her group. When she arrived, things were not ready and she was asked to wait (time she could have spent doing other things). Worse, an hour later she was told that there were enough volunteers and she could go home if she wanted. She said she never volunteered again.
Appreciation shows itself when a volunteer is given clear instructions so he or she feels successful. It is also shown when the volunteer is not micro-managed or given no chance to be creative. Sometimes appreciation is simply mentioning successes at the next meeting – not insincere praise but concrete observations about what group members have done – and sometimes by putting in clear start and endpoints, so that the team does not feel overwhelmed.
In fact, sometimes an officer needs to appreciate his or her own actions and recognize that he or she has given enough – that it is okay to say “no” sometimes.
Finally, asking for feedback shows appreciation: once a task is complete, ask each volunteer to critique the process, including what worked and where things could be better. No need to write a long missive; just listen to how the experience felt from the volunteer’s point of view. Who knows, that volunteer might just decide to be a board member in order to make the group’s processes even better
Humor and Humanity
In the end, we can’t change human nature or read minds. There is no getting around the fact that taking a leadership role involves a lot of time and a lot more patience, and that member personalities and unstated claims can take both time and patience (Did I mention patience?).
One writer mentioned a meeting where he brought back interesting gadgets from Macworld. He did a presentation about the gadgets and then gave them to the group to raffle off. The member had paid for his own trip to the Expo, had received the items personally and had put a lot of work into a clever presentation. He just wanted to contribute to his group. The result? He received fairly unpleasant complaints from two folk who did not win one of the raffle items. They complained that he should have brought more back! Regardless of the thanks of others, it was the complaints that stayed with him even years later.
If meetings are not fun, why are we doing them? If we do not enjoy being together or feelings are hurt, why are we meeting? The gatherings I remember most are the ones where fun, excitement and humor were all present – where we connected on a personal level around a shared interest. The member who makes us laugh is generally one who is loved. The member who makes us feel special might be the one who keeps us coming back, even when competing claims and complicated schedules make attendance tricky.
As Rick suggested, calculate your group’s “snore factor” and modify accordingly.
Revitalizing a group can be challenging but the results can be incredibly rewarding. Leaders have found that spreading the work around, aligning the person to the task, sorting needs from niceties, publicity, appreciation and humor can yield good results.
The guidance shared by leaders in our community came from:
- Rick Curran of CMUG in Myrtle Beach (and past leader of AOL’s User Group Forum)
- Amaya Gergoff Bengoa, Apple’s User Group Liaison for Central and South Europe
- Lynn Wegley of TUMS and co-publisher of UGNN’s InfoManager
- Nicholas Pyers, Founder & Publisher of AppleUsers.org
- Randy Singer of MacAttorney and Co-author of The Macintosh Bible (4th, 5th, and 6th editions)
- Jason Davies of SMUG
- Jerome (Jerry) King, President of Naples MacFriends User Group, Inc.
- Dunham Swift, VP for Sun City Center Apple User Group
- Bill Toney Apple Ambassador for VMUG
- Walt Smith of Apple Corps Dallas
- Carole Martin, Apple Ambassador for the Villages Apple User Group
- Bill Martens, President of Apple Pugetsound Program Library Exchange and editor of Call-A.P.P.L.E.
- Tony Taylor, Apple Ambassador for the Trilogy Macintosh User Group
- and the people who asked to contribute privately.If I have missed your contribution, please let me know. (Most of the folk listed above have far more affiliations and titles than those in the abbreviated list here.) Thanks much to everyone who shared his or her expertise.
The Apple User Group Advisory Board would like to hear success stories from groups. If you have a membership management system that works great and would like to share your story with us, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Sandy Foderick – Apple User Group Advisory Board and Editor for the Apple User Group Bulletin