Sunday, June 15, 2008

The Audacity of Organization

Pursuant to the last post, Pretty Lady has been thinking how much fun it would be to take a bus to Iowa and fill sandbags for a day or two. Alas, circumstances prevent her, but should any flooding arrive in the NYC metropolitan statistical area, she is psychologically prepared to Pitch In.

Largely, she has been thinking, this is because the astonishingly effective organization of the Obama campaign has led her to believe that should she show up, wearing old clothes, sensible shoes, and with some well-chosen tools and a pair of gardening gloves, organized people would tell her where to go, and how to most effectively cope with the emerging Situation.

In latter years, Pretty Lady has become a bit of a cynic. She has cut back on her volunteer work for such things as community arts organizations, nonprofits, alternative artspaces, art networking groups, and art education programs for the underprivileged, because when she DID work for these organizations, she invariably found herself running the show. This is because she generally proved to be the most-competent individual in the room, and everybody else was quick to notice, and Take Advantage.

And Pretty Lady cannot afford to become that stout, genial, ubiquitous Martyr who keeps an organization running singlehandedly, putting in 60-hour workweeks for no pay, and is presented with a plaque and a champagne toast after 25 years. What she wants is to show up, put in four hours of useful labor, and go home again.

Having a system in place, then, for effectively channelling the energy and goodwill of very part-time, but competent, volunteers like Pretty Lady would seem to be crucial for tackling Thorny Problems with grace and frugality. If an organization--whether it be a charitable used-clothing shop, a community arts organization, or Doctors Without Borders--continually pisses off its willing volunteers by having no method for communicating what, where, when, how and why, in any given situation, it will quickly find itself in the position of only having the Overweening Busybodies and the Totally Useless to work with, since everyone with an actual Life is going to have better things to do.


Chris Rywalt said...

Flooding did arrive, briefly, in the New York metropolitan area; our minivan was inundated on Route 1&9 in North Bergen yesterday so badly I carried my daughter to safety through the floodwaters.

You know that footage on the news where they show the idiot's car hip-deep in the water with the hazards flashing? Yesterday I got to be the idiot.

The water never got higher than our sturdy minivan's fenders and it drained away almost immediately, but the van itself, alas, is toast.

Pretty Lady said...

Oh my goodness, Chris! A real-life adventure!

Why is the van toast? How can water do that much damage? Did it float away, or did the engine short out, or is it just very smelly?

Our Ford got stuck in a flood once when I was on a Girl Scout camping trip; Dad came to rescue us, and while we were fording the swollen river the backseat filled up with water. The Ford ran just fine for a decade afterward, but it smelled like a bog every time the weather got humid.

Chris Rywalt said...

I'm not sure how toasted the van actually is. My guess is it's pretty well wrecked, but I won't know until the mechanic goes over it. But I spoke to my father on the phone today (Happy Father's Day!) and he, being an auto mechanic, explained what can happen. If water gets into the air intake of the engine, the cylinders can fill up with water. If the engine is still running at that point, the pistons will try to compress that water. Water can't be compressed. Instead all kinds of moving parts tie themselves into knots.

I'm thinking, if I'm going to continue to live in the swamps of Jersey, I'm going to have to get myself a Hummer with the fording attachment.

Anonymous said...

Oh, I am so with you on this post.

The thing is, once your competence for organization is recognized, you end up being pushed into that role because you can do it.

It is exceedingly difficult no matter what end of this situation you are on. As a staff person in an organization, volunteers can be a mixed blessing. Nobody wants to be told what to do and nobody wants to volunteer for specific tasks. I think that's why volunteers aren't well utilized in organizations; it is difficult to discern who is sincerely interested in helping and is able to follow through. (From personal experience, I can unequivocally attest to PL's absolute competence) As staff, resentment builds toward you because you are being paid to do what they are doing for free. However, most staff are usually doing as much volunteer time in their organization as the average volunteer. It can be a conundrum!

Carol Diehl said...

This subject is hardly ever addressed, but you and Sus are right. I also have ended up on the organizing/staff end, but right now, like PL, I wish there were more opportunities to put in 4hours, stuff envelopes or whatever, and go home. Some of the organizations I've worked with/for have understood the need to have things for volunteers to do and treat them well, others have not. They should be welcomed like guests, given a specific, complete-able task, and be able to go home feeling as if they've made a difference.

Chris Rywalt said...

I understand about organization, and being the one stuck with all the work. It's happened to me occasionally, but more often it happens to my wife. She ends up doing the job of five people at whatever job she has, and then on top of that she ends up helping to run any organizations she shows up for. Right now she's a Girl Scout leader, on the PTA of one school, on the PTO of another, and she coaches softball. She just missed being elected president of the PTO -- she was the only candidate, then someone else decided to run just so there'd be an election, the vote was tied, and Dawn dropped out. She really has too much to do already.

On the other hand, my volunteer efforts in Cub Scouts have shown me how groups can self-organize to a surprising degree. I've never been good at delegating anything; I always feel I have to attend to every detail myself. A couple of years ago I was volunteered for planning the annual Cub Scout camping trip. I had no desire to do this. The first trip went well, but it was last year's that really surprised me: I handed out assignments and when the trip arrived, I had nothing to do. I didn't even make the pancakes Sunday morning, and that'd been my job since my son joined Scouts (because I'm a pancake snob). I strode around like MacArthur sternly overseeing things, but somehow I guess I'd given the work to the right people and they'd found the right people and everything just worked.

It was my first real experience with letting other people help me and it was pretty fantastic. I had no idea people could just sort of spontaneously do things together in a sensible way.

Ben T said...

Very well put.