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Self-destructive group behavior
Extracted from The Trouble Maker's Teaparty, Charles Dobson
April 2003

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One largely overlooked cause of low levels of citizen involvement is the internal dynamics of all-volunteer groups. Countless grassroots initiatives wither and die without achieving anything because members don't pay attention to what can go wrong inside a group. Many citizens groups quite simply drive away their most able members. In a typical arc, a new member will step forward to work with others on some public issue, last for a relatively short time, then disappear back into private life, never to be heard from again. A flash of green, then nothing. What causes this kind of wilt?

Too little fun. People who take themselves too seriously can turn any task into a chore. Getting together should feel more like recreation than work, no matter how serious the issue. Long-term activists have fun when they get together. They almost always enjoy making fun of people in power. Those who understand citizen involvement stress the importance of having fun over all other considerations.

Too much emphasis on organization and too little on mission. Hoping to become more organized, many small groups create little bureaucracies that drain everyone's energy. Often so much effort goes into maintaining the organization that there is little left to pursue the reason for creating an organization in the first place. Beware of creating a board, forming a non-profit society, writing grant applications, fundraising, annual reports, Robert's Rules of Order, and the other components of organizational quicksand.

Too many meetings and too little action. Most people would prefer to act on something concrete rather than sit at a meeting wrangling over an issue trying to "reach consensus". Some meetings are necessary, but try to keep frequency down, the length short, and the number of participants small.

Too much deciding and too little creating. Every advocacy group needs to generate options for action. To do this well, participants need to switch off their Voice of Judgment and brainstorm. Unfortunately, when people get together for a meeting they usually switch on their Voice of Judgment in preparation for decision making. If they remain in this critical frame of mind, they will generate few options for action, little will get done, and no one will have any fun.

Too many people. Because of the emphasis on getting more people involved, many people feel that large groups are better than small groups. This is a mistake. A working group should not exceed ten people. A small group does not preclude working with others under the umbrella of a larger group; nor does it prelude communicating with larger numbers of people through email networks, special events, and annual conventions.

Too little contact. It is hard for people to maintain a working relationship if they rarely see one another. Once a month is the usual minimum for long-term projects. Once a week is best for hot or short-term projects. Once a week also fits the way people schedule other activities. If regular face-to-face contact is difficult, regular phone calls or email may work as a weak substitute. Community groups need to pay more attention to unplanned contact.

Too much to do. Groups of nine or less can often manage on personal resources, but as group size increases and there is more to do, a shortage of money and time often leads to spiraling decline. Without paid staff there is no one to look after organizational house keeping, and no one to train, manage, and reward volunteers. As people disappear, many grassroots leaders burn out trying to do more and more themselves. A lack of resources does not mean giving up. It means keeping your group small, and inventing clever ways to use time, connections, and skills. Most important it means matching what you do to the resources you have available.

Source: The Troublemaker's Teaparty: A Manual for Effective Citizen Action by Charles Dobson

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