Last week, I extended some heartfelt gratitude to the local people in our community who work hard to make our families’ lives better (see: https://thecitizen.com/2023/05/08/some-well-deserved-thanks-to-people-who-serve-our-community/).
This week, let’s list some observations on how to get the most out of your community service and the local organizations you work through.
There is no better feeling than seeing the fruits of your labor in the local community, knowing that you helped improve the lives of those around you. However, on the flip side, nothing is more agonizing than watching those same organizations fall apart due to some form of negligence or ignorance.
Whether you are a volunteer participating in a government commission or authority, local civic group, homeowners’ association, or a non-profit charity, things can go terribly wrong with failed leadership, rogue board members, rebellious organization members, or mission drift. After participating in all sorts of non-profit organizations for nearly half a century, allow me to give you something to ponder that might help you enter community service with your eyes wide open.
Lead, follow, or get out of the way
Nothing demolishes the good deeds of an organization faster than people who step up to be leaders and then refuse to lead. This might appear obvious but do not take a leadership position if you do not have the time to invest in the organization.
Leaders or organizers who cannot make regularly scheduled meetings and do not have time to participate in the organization’s events do not need to be in a leadership position. You would be shocked at how many times this happens.
Importantly, there comes a point when the person has been in leadership too long. Many people just cannot let go. They are totally unaware that the organization can run without them.
Remember, it’s not about you. A person who goes beyond five years in an organization’s leadership begins to tire, attention drops off, and the mission becomes stale. After eight years in leadership, many just become a leader in name only. There can be exceptions, but those are very rare.
One of the worst scenarios is the “I own this organization” mentality.
The former Peachtree City Development Authority might be the worst-case scenario in Fayette County’s history. The authority was made up of volunteers appointed by the city council. Unfortunately, the same “volunteers” kept getting appointed over and over again with some remaining in their posts 20 years or more.
Regrettably, the authority members became so sure of themselves that they acted as though they owned the development authority rather than serving the citizens. They began violating the law, made outrageous decisions, covered things up, etc., and it all exploded in the local newspapers.
It got so bad that then-Police Chief James Murray referred to the situation at the authority as a “culture of corruption.” The circumstances were so devastating that the city later dissolved the authority.
Creating board member term limits and a program to develop the next round of leaders is a good move.
For organizations that cater to youth sports or other youth activities, make sure that all your leadership is not made up of parents whose children are the same age and will age out of the program simultaneously. Being forced to hoist a whole new leadership team to the board with no prior experience can be non-productive, even catastrophic.
Focus, focus, and focus some more
Leaders of local community organizations need to know how to competently run a meeting. Each leader on the board, president, vice president, treasurer, secretary, etc., should know their duties and be prepared. You do not have to follow strict Robert’s Rules of Order (unless you are a local political party), but the president should be able to call for a motion, ask for a second, allow for discussion, and call for a vote. Having good meeting minutes is a necessity.
I have witnessed utter chaos where multiple items are being discussed simultaneously and the discussion wanders relentlessly. Your board members and organization members will tire of this quickly and eventually find better things to do than attending your meetings. Maintain order and get the business done quickly so people can go home.
Rather than discussing every detail of a problematic situation and developing a resolution in the board meeting, try creating committees to work on certain issues and report back to the board with some possible solutions.
Again, this is obvious but so often ignored, getting the leadership to focus on the organization’s mission is key. The children in the youth sports league really do not care if three of the board members cannot get along. Focus on the children and run the program!
Nearly every organization has bylaws. You need to follow the bylaws, and if you decide otherwise, you are increasing the legal liability for you and the organization. This is never a serious issue until someone sues the pants off you. If there is a problem with a clause in the bylaws, formally change it.
Something went wrong
When unethical or illegal behavior is found, please be sure to deal with it quickly and professionally. It might not be a bad idea to hire an attorney to advise the board on the issue, ensuring due process and a positive outcome.
I have always believed a community organization’s board should err on the side of too much transparency. The board should always give the members an idea of where they are taking the organization and always ask for questions and feedback along the way.
Trouble normally follows when a board member begins to work independently of your other board members without their knowledge. Unified actions are the best actions.
Do not promise more than you can deliver. If your organization has facilities or real estate, make sure you do not create a maintenance or debt burden that future boards may not appreciate. This is another reason to be upfront with good communication.
Beware of people who come up with great ideas for your organization but are unwilling to become a board member or participate in the implementation of their ideas.
If you are a disgruntled or burned-out board member, do yourself and your colleagues a favor and leave the board. Do not be a non-productive deadweight in the organization. Go do something else and be happy.
The city government has become a problem
On the municipal front, the city council has been a major hindrance. The city has had long-standing citizen volunteer commissions and authorities who help steer the city’s forward progress and quality of life. There has been an intentional movement to take away community participation and hide the decision-making behind the walls of City Hall.
Through a series of lies, the city government under the Fleisch administration disemboweled the citizen planning commission (see: https://thecitizen.com/2021/02/25/demoted-planning-commission-can-no-longer-protect-residents-from-bait-and-switch-apartment-rezonings/). Fortunately, because so many of us raised the issue, the citizen-run planning commission has been fully restored. Thank you, Councilmen Frank Destadio and Clint Holland, for leading that effort.
Currently, the citizen-run recreation commission has been dissolved without a vote of the city council and the Learnard administration refuses to restore the commission and appoint members. This is one of those “we know better than everyone else” scenarios by the city council. If they were on the up-and-up, the actions would not have been performed out of sight, behind closed doors.
Think about it. It’s awfully difficult to justify why the city leaders do not want parents involved in recreational sports programs to have a unified voice, offering suggestions to the city council on programming and facilities.
Perhaps, the city’s neglect is why the adult softball field remains inoperable and closed at the same time the mayor is building a brand new facility for 750 pickleball players. I wonder what a restored citizen-run recreation commission would say?
Serve your community, have fun, and do it the right way.
[Brown is a former mayor of Peachtree City and served two terms on the Fayette County Board of Commissioners. You can read all his columns by clicking on his photo below.]