I have been facilitating a discussion on the Optimist International group on LinkedIn that asks members to suggest possible solutions to reverse the decline of membership enrollment in Optimist Clubs around the world. Optimist International is no different from other service organizations like Rotary, Lions and Kiwanis; all are experiencing membership decline.
What I have discovered in the process comes as no surprise to me. It is difficult to suggest a solution because every individual perceives the problem differently due to their personal relationship to the organization. Everyone is involved with an Optimist Club for a different reason. Perhaps before we can solve the problem of membership decline, we need to put our personal beliefs aside in order to understand what the organization truly is.
Optimist International is a network of autonomous Optimist Clubs that develop fellowship in order to perform community service projects on a local level with an emphasis on projects that recognize, involve or celebrate children.
If this were a business model, we might say that Optimist International is the franchiser and each club is the franchisee. Optimist International leases the relationship to the local clubs via membership dues. It then helps develop leaders by delivering training through a district structure and suggests a number of programs in which Optimist Clubs may choose to participate.
However, this organization does not run a business model. It runs on a membership association model which means volunteers are directing the cause. Volunteers are the franchisers and the trainers as well as the franchisees and the trainees.
Moreover, volunteers are the leaders and the followers in this relationship-based oligarchy.
Volunteers have different motivations than professionals. First, their involvement may be quite selfish. In a list compiled by Susan J. Ellis of Energize, Inc and published at ServiceLeader.org, motivations to volunteer, it is easy to see how "to become an insider," "to feel proud," and "to build your resume," among others, might be seen as selfish.
Second, their skills are diverse. Unlike a professional setting where skills are developed and utilized in order to advance the company where they work and thereby their compensation, volunteers join organizations in order to advance their own knowledge and abilities without remuneration. That can lead to a mismatch when those who are deemed trainers are perceived less qualified than those who are receiving training.
Third, the time to lead is short. When a volunteer rises to the top role in a membership association, their tenure in that role is generally one year. One can imagine how it would be difficult to affect change in that little time. That is why the culture must change along with the leader who is on the rise.
Membership organizations do this poorly and believe me, many corporations have difficulty with this as well. In Corporate Culture: Illuminating the Black Hole, James Want explains that corporate culture is important to the overall effectiveness of an organization. He identifies seven typical cultures: predatory, frozen and chaotic are deemed the worst; service and new age cultures are deemed the best; and falling in the middle are the relationship-based political and bureaucratic cultures most often seen in the membership organization structure.
According to Want, the latter are relationship-based cultures. The political culture is a "who you know" culture while the bureaucratic culture keeps people in their place based on where their position falls on the organization chart. Since a volunteer has little to gain for advancing through the ranks, the will to buck the system may be lacking. In this instance, culture and the flow of advancement may be driving Optimist International and other service organization into an inevitable downward spiral as new associations are started that thrive in an open culture environment.
There are no easy solutions to the problem of declining membership in service organizations, but I firmly believe that the path begins with communications and engagement. Those who are interested in seeing Optimist International and its counterparts survive and prosper will participate in the conversation. In this way, we'll move ever-so-slightly and slowly towards an open culture, one that allows everyone to be informed, contribute and lead, that has been deemed most successful for growth.
September 13, 2014
September 6, 2014
I know that I have done many good things for many communities as a member of an Optimist Club. I have made a difference because I've empowered others to make a difference for their children and the cities where they live. My legacy will be the work I have given through my Optimist Club.
For example, four years ago, I helped start the Middleton Area Optimist Club. Like most new Optimist Club projects, it was slow to get going, but we chartered with more than 30 people. That's the good news. At the turn of the administrative year, about half of those people quit. That's the bad news.
However, this challenge brought an opportunity to make a difference. Fifteen individuals remained enthusiastic about their ideas to bring good things to Middleton. As a rural town outside of the Boise MSA, they longed for more activities that they could do at home without having to drive thirty or more miles to participate.
The group decided to host Free Movies in the Park. They collaborated with the Parks and Recreation District to purchase a big screen and video equipment. They enlisted 12 theater screen advertisers and community advocates to cover the movie licensing and on September 12, 2014, they will conclude the third season of Free Movies in the Park by hosting "Frozen" along with a Family Fun Fair.
The Middleton Area Optimist Club has made a difference. By completing their goal to create more activities for families in Middleton, the club has made the community more cohesive, generated more partnerships, and inspired the City to pursue initiatives to do more of the same.
The Middleton Area Optimist Club has also grown to more thirty members again and it has developed many more activities for the community. The Middleton Area Optimist Club makes a difference every day as do I, as a member of this special group.
That's why I encourage you to join an Optimist Club so that you too can make a difference every day. Do this and begin to build your legacy through the good works of an Optimist Club.
Find an Optimist Club here or let me know if I can help you get a new Optimist Club in your community by sending me an email message here.
August 31, 2014
Why would someone want to join an Optimist Club?
The reasons are many including:
- To make a difference in my community
- To share lunch, breakfast or dinner with like-minded individuals
- To help children
- To recite the Optimist Creed
But the real truth is that we join Optimist Clubs because it makes us feel good. When we get together with other like-minded people and share a meal, we make friends and develop positive projects that make a difference in our community and that, my friends, feels good.
Find an Optimist Club near you and join today so that you can feel good too.
If you don't see one near where you live or work, let me know and I'll help you get a new Optimist Club started in your community.
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