Why don’t volunteers follow through?

Golf Swing

How is volunteer management like golf? It’s all about the follow through.
 (Photo credit: gibsonsgolfer)

I’ve asked myself this question more times than I can count.

Sometimes I ask it as a manager who works with dedicated volunteers–all of whom seem completely confident in their ability to live up to a commitment one moment and many of whom are absolutely “too busy” to follow through the next.

Sometimes I ask it as a volunteer who enthusiastically agrees to work in one meeting–only to sheepishly admit in the next meeting that the work is (still) not finished (or sometimes–started).

One very enthusiastic and capable volunteer explained this phenomena from her perspective in a way I’ll never forget. Continue reading

Stop Shouting into the Wind

Photo credit: suneko

You do incredibly important work.  Your community would suffer without you.  And yet it seems like most people know nothing about you.  You write press release after press release, hold meeting after meeting, tweet about every event–to little or no avail.  It seems impossible to shout any louder.

The situation is frustrating, because the people that do know you, love you, so it stands to reason if you could reach others they would love you too; and reaching them is so important.  By reaching those people you could grow.  More supporters means more volunteers, more donors, more audience members and more clients.  And all of that means you spend more time fulfilling your mission and  less time wondering how you will keep the lights on.

I know it seems shouting louder in bigger venues with more people should help, but it doesn’t.  The problem is, all of those people are shouting too–and it’s very hard to hear others when you are shouting.

Luckily, some of the other shouters are just the people you are trying to reach.  If you stop shouting and listen for a minute you will find them.  Then, rather than shouting your message to them, really hear what they are saying.  Answer their questions, offer your support.  When it’s appropriate, let them know how your organization can help solve their problem.  I promise, it won’t take too many conversations like that one before other people start shouting on your behalf.

The idea of a  large room with people shouting is (mostly) a metaphor.   In reality, the key is to find the places the people you want to reach hang out (on-line and off) and go listen to them there.

The purpose of Low Hanging Fruit  is to help you find those places,  teach you how to recognize your people, and how to listen well.  We will also spend time focused on how to best respond to your people’s questions and needs and how to craft your own messages using language and tools that will make it easy for them to hear you.  Many of these resources will show up here on the blog but if you don’t want to miss anything, be sure to sign up for e-mail updates.  Just enter your e-mail address and click the “sign me up” button in the right sidebar.  Then the new stuff will be delivered to your e-mail box as soon as it is available.

Enough about me, tell me about you

Being heard is a lot about listening, but it’s also about being ready to talk about yourself clearly and in a compelling way–especially when invited to do so.  So here is your invitation.

Use the comment section to tell us about your organization, what makes it great, how you are saving the world or making it more livable, and what you need to do your work better.  Can’t wait to hear all about you!

Want Better Meetings? Cut your agenda in half

Photo Credit: Ollie Crafoord

This post is part of a series.  Click here to read the whole thing.

I know it sounds counter intuitive, but one of the best things you can do to increase meeting productivity is to plan on doing less.

Why? Because by stuffing your meeting agenda you don’t allow time to focus.  This means when you uncover a tough spot, you won’t work though it, you will “address that later,” which means next month (and, let’s face it, probably the month after that) it will be back on the agenda.

If you want your meeting time to be spent doing the work that can’t be done in any other way, try this instead:  Aside from “housekeeping” items like an icebreaker, agenda review and meeting evaluations, allow only one agenda item per meeting hour.

That’s Impossible!!!
If you are used to traditional marathon meetings with 10 agenda items (not that anyone has seen the agenda), tons of reports by people who talk to hear themselves talk, and no clear direction on what is supposed to happen after the meeting, I’m sure a meeting with only 1-2 main topics seems crazy.  But I assure you, it is possible and it is better.  Here’s how to to make the transition.

Trim the fat
Remove everything from your agenda that doesn’t benefit from face-to-face interaction.  The most likely suspect?  Reports.   Don’t spend any time in your meetings presenting information that can be distributed in advance.  Send the reports in writing, save a bit of time for questions if you must, and move on. Not sure what to cut?  Be on the lookout for times when one person is talking and everyone else is doodling or trying to check their e-mail without getting caught.  Get the “talker” to deliver his info in some other way (outside the meeting) and spend your meeting time on the work that you must do together.

Be prepared
No one should come to a meeting wondering what is going to be discussed.  Send the agenda a week before the meeting, include any reports or background materials that are required for full participation, and expect that everyone will do the work in advance.  It’s better to cancel meetings for which people aren’t prepared than build a culture where it’s alright not to do the pre-work because “we can just go over it again in the meeting.”

Additionally, If there are specific questions that need to be answered, or decisions that need to be made–make that clear in the pre-meeting materials.  This gives participants every opportunity to come prepared for the work at hand and also gives people who need more time to reflect a chance do start their work before the meeting.

Clarify next steps
How will you know if the meeting was a success?  Who will do what after the meeting?  Make sure you know–and make sure your participants know.  If everyone is pulling in the same direction and knows where her responsibilities lay, it’s much more likely that problems will get solved (and stay solved) in your next meeting.

Finally, you may not be able to make the leap all at once–but baby steps will help.  Change one element of your meetings at a time and before you know it you too will be getting more done by focusing on less!!

Using “I” statements without feeling foolish

Image credit:  Anders V

Image credit: Anders V

If you study communication or have been in the 7th grade, someone, somewhere, taught you to use “I” statements rather than blaming statements to let people know you are upset.  The idea is if you express yourself in a way that doesn’t escalate the conflict everyone’s needs will be met and the world will be a better place.  And that is all true, except–

It’s hard to do it with a straight face.

I mean, can you imagine responding to the boss who likes to humiliate you in the weekly staff meeting by saying “I feel embarrassed when you yell at me in front of all of these people.  Could you speak to me more respectfully?

It’s a perfectly reasonable request, stated very clearly–and yet unlikely to land–at least in the situations where you most need it.

So what to do?  You could:

  • Yell back
  • Suck it up
  • Say nothing in the meeting and trash talk him behind his back*

Or–you can try a modified “I” statement.

The real difficulty with the traditional “I” statement is that it’s awkward.   It involves two rare communication techniques (expressing emotions in words and asking for what you want directly) squished back to back. So unless you have a lot of practice, or are in an environment where this form of communication is common, (hint–if people are wearing tie-dye and/or using the term “far out” without irony you may be in such a place) it’s really hard to pull off.

Luckily, you don’t have to study non-violent communication for years or move to a commune to benefit from “I” statements–you can begin by splitting the statement in half.  In other words, rather than sharing your emotional state and making a direct request, try acknowledging your emotional state in your head and then expressing your request out loud.

Most of the time this request is going to be for more information, or for the same information to be delivered in another way. Why?  Laird Schwab calls it virtual earwax.  Strong emotions can act like earwax–making it very hard to really hear what’s going on.  By acknowledging your emotional state in your head, you are able to remove some of that earwax (assuming you catch it soon enough), so you will be ready to have information repeated in a way it can get through.

The way you word the request for information will be slightly different depending on the situation, but the way through each involves a process called appreciative inquiry–the practice of asking honest, neutral, and open ended questions for the purpose of increasing one’s understanding of another perspective. (as defined by the Mach 30 consensus policy)

For example, going back to being yelled at in the staff meeting,  if after acknowledging in your head that you are feeling defensive (or whatever the emotion is) and deciding, despite his delivery method, there may be something valuable in what he’s trying to communicate, you can set your own upset aside for a moment and  say:

  • I understand you are unhappy with my work.  Could you give me some specific advice on how to make this report better for next time?
  • I want to do better next time.  How can we change the process so we are both happier next week?
  • I want to make sure I understand where you are coming from–could you repeat the action steps for me?

If you are the boss, you don’t have to yell to get your way.  When you are disappointed (or what ever the emotion is) try asking:

  • What can I do to make my expectations more clear on the next assignment?
  • Can you tell me what happened so we can avoid those circumstances in the future?
  • What do you need from me to be successful?

Why this works

Most of the value of expressing your emotional state in words lies in  recognizing for yourself what you are feeling so you can decide how to respond using your emotions as information rather than the driver of your behavior.  You get this benefit by naming your emotion in your head–so in many situations you can skip saying it out loud.  In this way you only use one rare communication technique– which is easier to execute and easier for others to hear.

By using appreciative inquiry, you provide an opening for others to express themselves clearly.  Since being understood is a basic human need, almost everyone responds positively to the opportunity.

Why bother?

If you are the victim of crappy communicators why should it fall to you to do all the work?

  1. Because there is nothing you can do about the behavior of others but you can change how you respond.
  2. It’s to your advantage to get as much feedback as possible in most situations.  Unfortunately, much of the feedback we get from others is delivered in an emotional package that can be hard to decipher.  By first clearing your own emotional ear wax and then using appreciative inquiry  to help others deliver information in a way  that you are able to hear, you gain the advantage of getting a clearer picture of  the situation at hand.

*While I don’t suggest passive-aggression as a tool for getting your needs met, it can provide hours of internet fun.

Want better meetings? Do evaluations

This post is part of a series.  Click here to read the whole thing.

If you want your meeting participants to be engaged, you must make sure they are getting good value for their time.

How will you know when you’ve done that?  Ask.  (Earth-shattering, I know)

Here’s what you do.  Save 5-10 minutes at the end of each meeting to ask 4 simple questions:

  • When did you feel we were at our most productive?
  • When did you feel we got bogged down?
  • What can we do to make our next meeting better?
  • Anything else?


  • Finish the evaluation during the agreed upon meeting time.  If you extend the meeting for the evaluation, your participants may be too focused on leaving to give good responses.
  • For your first evaluations, go around the room/table and ask each person to respond (allowing them to pass if they choose).  This gets everyone used to the process.  Once you’ve been doing evaluations for while you may be able to skip the go-round.  However, if you skip it in the beginning, you are unlikely to get good feedback.
  • Write responses on your flip chart.
  • Be sure to integrate what you learn from the evaluation into the next meeting.

Why it works

Obvious reason

  • The feedback makes your meetings better.

Less obvious reasons

  • The more you involve people in any process, they more they own it.  And as every ex-renter knows, owning something increases engagement exponentially.
  • Simply knowing there will be an opportunity to share issues later reduces angst in the moment.  When there is no evaluation, people can get so distracted by what’s bothering them they are unable to notice anything else.  At best this means they stop participating, at worst they will distract others from the work as well.

Want more facilitation advice?  Read The Skilled Facilitator by Roger Schwarz , or contact me for personalized assistance.