Why no one wants to help

Every small town struggles with finding enough volunteers for their projects and events. That’s what you told us on the Survey of Rural Challenges, and that’s what you tell me when we talk in person. You’re not alone. You may feel like you’re alone when it comes time to get things done, but you’re not the only one with this struggle. 

And I have a weird idea for you: you’re waiting too long to involve others.

You’re waiting to present the project as almost finished. You’re not leaving room for more people to create it with you. 

Let’s take a real-world example. A small museum put on a history re-enactment event, the kind where local people dress up as historical figures from the town and tell stories or re-enact events from the past. It’s a new-ish event for the town. The first time they told the public about it, the museum staff and volunteers had already worked out the details. Basically the only role for the public was to attend. 

That doesn’t leave any room for the public to help create it with them.

And people do want a part in creating it together. It’s buy in. It’s involvement. It’s the difference between passively watching the performance, and knowing you actively helped, even in a small way. 

Of course there are more people who will watch than will help create, but there are more people who will help create than will ever join a committee. We’re missing out on them because they won’t sign up as traditional, year-round, serve-on-the-board volunteers.  

That’s how we were all trained to do things: don’t announce an event at all until you have as many details nailed down as possible. It’s part of looking professional or seeming to have things together. The only people who get to be part of creating it together are your current volunteers, the people who are on your committees or in your inside circle already. 

Everyone else in the community is outside, and they never heard about it until it was a done deal. Why would I get excited about something I didn’t help create? In fact, the museum is struggling to find volunteers to keep this new event alive. 

How could there be any room for the public in the historical re-enactment? Let’s try it this way. The museum staff and volunteers announce they want to do a re-enactment. They start a big campaign to spread the word about the idea, long before any decisions are made. They invite everyone to jump in to help create it together. Not to suggest ideas for the overworked staff and volunteers, but to create it themselves. 

Invite the seniors group to help come up with stories and to play roles. Invite the kids in drama classes to create part of it themselves. Invite the outsider kids (the not-so-cool kids who always get left out) to reenact a controversial scene from the past. (Be brave!) 

Key note: the museum staff doesn’t have to be in charge of all this. They don’t have to tell people yes, you can do that, or no, you can’t play. They just have to create the framework that lets the community build what the community wants.

You’ll see people get involved who you’ve never seen before, and you’ll have a lot more amazing things happen, but you won’t be in control. There will be parts you don’t like. It’s chaos. And that’s the way the world works now.  

Before you brush this off with “that will never work!” let me ask you to think again about your struggle to get people involved in the old way of doing things. That barely works any more and may not work for much longer.

Ready to take a chance on some chaos? Join us next week for the webinar on Chaos. We’ll give you some tools to make a bit more sense out of it. 
Keep shaping the future of your town, 

PS – When Deb and I talked about this example, it was the one that made us argue back and forth the most. That’s why we decided to do our next webinar on Chaos. Deb said if she and I had to talk through it together, you probably wanted to hear more about it, too.