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The advice I give here applies to computer user groups, Team OS/2, usenet communities and other grass roots organizations, but you might also find it useful for managing your local church group or car club.
More than anything else, it's our ability to help one another that matters. A grass roots 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 the general meeting or "how it works" articles in the user group magazine. It might be community assistance, working with a local school system to get them on the Internet.
The danger isn't that the group will forget, one day, and find itself supporting a competing operating system 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.
At the top of the organization (such as the board of directors, in a user group), 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 grass roots 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, 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.
For-profit businesses have to concern themselves with finding new customers (also called marketing), with providing goods and services to customers (aka 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 Web site, or provide other services. They have to find a meeting space, find an ISP, 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.
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 user groups, 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.
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.
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.
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