Overwhelmed Engagement


Recently I’ve been worried about some of my organization’s volunteers.  I see a lot of the same faces at all of our events and activities.  I can’t help but wonder, “Are we overwhelming our members?”

We all know of the 80/20 rule; 80% of the work is done by 20% of the people.  Technically the rule states that 80% of results are attributable to 20% of the causes. This rule is also known as the Pareto Principle (This link from Investopidia.com provides a concise explanation and a short video.)

We know that the 80/20 rule applies in many places, especially volunteer organizations.  However – are we creating a scenario that I call “Overwhelmed Engagement”?

I define overwhelmed engagement in this way.  We continually ask the doers to do a little bit more.  Why?
…because they say yes,
…because we have a good relationship with them,
…because it’s comfortable to ask.

It’s like the idiom “the straw that broke the camel’s back”.   This oriental proverb has a long history and has seen much iteration all leading to the fact that seemingly minor matters may end with major unexpected consequences.

We don’t heap big tasks upon these volunteers, but at times it’s easier to assign the work to one who’s responsibilities are similar to what needs done. Eventually said doer gets overwhelmed – sheds tasks – takes a break – or may even quit the organization.

One group that I am familiar with continually asked a sitting officer to add to their volunteer workload.  It was easy to say that many of the new tasks fell into his responsibility.  When said officer mentioned to other leaders that the job was taking more time than he had available, he was met with little to no help or sympathy.  Eventually, this person resigned their position and left the organization.

How can we engage our members yet not overwhelm them?  There is a balancing act between Overwhelmed Engagement  and what I described as “Membership Guilt” in an earlier post.  Perhaps those with this guilt should be asked to lead a projects or activity?  Would this solve both challenges? Hmm.

In today’s hectic world I like to encourage “one off” events or short term assignments.  People are more likely to say yes to a defined role and time period rather than commit to chair an omnibus committee for a year or more.

So how do we move forward here?  A colleague used to ask seminar participants, “How do you eat an elephant?” as a part of her presentation.  The answer – “One bite at a time.”

What can your organization do to take manageable bites out of your activities.  Can you assign someone to organize and host one social event rather than every event throughout the year?  Or how about one community service project?  One fund raiser?  You get the point here.

In this way you can define the end goal and set a timeline.  A volunteer/member/etc is much more apt to accept a role with the goal line in site.

Look at fundraising campaigns.  There is always a set goal and an end date.  Can membership organizations and other nonprofits do the same and retain members along the way?  Perhaps by creating more short term events there is a chance for a larger number of members to become involved as well.  Or at least that’s one of the opportunities,

When all else fails remember that we all need a vacation every once in a awhile to recharge our batteries.  Let your volunteers/members have a vacation as well.  You might need to suggest it to them.  By letting them recharge – taking the pressure off of them – they will continue to serve enthusiastically and effectively.

Scott Brown is the Executive Director of the Columbus Rotary Club in Columbus, Ohio.  He has more than 15 years of experience with non-profit and volunteer organizations. For questions or assistance contact him here.


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