Empower Your Members With Association Tasks

By Tim Sloan

There used to be a comic strip called, The Far Side, by Gary Larsen, which many of you may remember. He was fond of making light of improbable situations and sight gags. One of my favorites showed a man in his back yard, scolding his dog. The dog, despite apparently considerable training, was pushing the lawnmower around randomly, leaving large areas of the grass uncut. “Bad dog, Trixie: No biscuit!” This was funny, of course, because the dog wasn’t wearing safety glasses.

But really, the master in that vignette portrays a common nightmare of many association leaders: dealing with the specter of delegating tasks to subordinates and risking not getting the desired result. Hopefully, not many of us actually think the things we want done can only be accomplished by those beings with superior intellect, like our own. Many members are like Trixie, who want to help but, for various reasons, aren’t being set up for success. Often, we avoid divvying the workload because our concern is that, 1) if we had the time, we’d just do it ourselves and, therefore, 2) since we don’t have the time, we sure don’t have time to train someone else either. That lets us in for the phenomenon witnessed among too many leaders in volunteer organizations: being too busy working to do our jobs.

In reality, there is a way to get other people to do tasks the way you would want and, knowing that, there is a long list of things you could think about having them do. The way to do it, I find, is to assign people to tasks in pairs, one of whom is a veteran and one of whom is relatively new to your group. Why? For a few reasons.

First, the veteran has probably seen the job you want done pulled off before. He doesn’t need to invent anything; merely replicate past efforts. That means you don’t have to play helicopter parent too much. Second, your veteran may not be around forever or, plausibly, could decline your next request for help, based on this initial experience. That’s where the rookie comes in, who apprenticed the first time and will have more incentive to continue assisting in the future. He or she can learn by watching the first time and then do at least as well in future efforts. The only thing you need to do is pick a competent — or, at least, highly imitative — senior member to get the initial job done. Oh, and newer members develop a greater affinity for you and the organization, if they get an early taste of responsibility, even if it’s … well, what is it?

There are some easy, important tasks, most members can do. For one, they can run, count ballots and scrutinize your elections. The veteran was smart enough to elect you, so he can probably prevent preparing ballots and guarding the shoebox from declining into rampant fraud. The rookie can count at least to 10, if not higher, depending on the sport you all officiate, so success in that venture is probable.

I also like to turn them loose on organizing the banquet. Since most of us have had teenagers, we’re well aware that some people won’t eat anything you provide. So, put one of your more bon vivant members in charge of lining up the hall, picking a menu, organizing the 50-50 draw, and so on. As long as they understand how much they have to spend, that usually goes well. Look in on them from time to time (since you’ll usually get to write a check or two, anyway) and things will go well: A lot of things are in it for them if they pull it all off, so they’ll probably give you a good effort.

Another thought is to put people to work presenting training. Some people have obvious stage fright issues and will decline your kind offer to run a session. But a surprising number are sitting back, hoping you would ask. Give them a guideline (time, subject, number of slide, language, etc.) then — above all — sit back and let them do their thing, warts and all. Remember, you have to let go of how you would do it, or else you’ll never grow the organization. Play the role of lifeguard during the presentation, though: step in only when they’re obviously floundering and remember that every swimmer has his or her own stroke.

You can use members on evaluations, too. That’s harder to do in pairs, but the way around that is to have the rookie accompany the grizzled veteran the first couple of times, then branch out on their own. Using people for evaluations, however, is harder than those other tasks, because you’re often asking people to take time away from officiating to watch others officiate. That’s a cash flow issue to many. You need to pick people who are slowing their schedules down yet happy to still be involved.

Notice that I haven’t recommended tasks like sitting in the mall, manning a recruiting table or calling everyone on the phone list to make sure they know about the upcoming election. You must reward people for their efforts with something tangible to show for it: a smoothly run election, yummy food or a realization about a rule that only came about by having to explain it, to name a few. Don’t ask people to do things that have nothing in it for them. They see enough of that at work and have probably read Dilbert, which occupies the space The Far Side once did.

The bottom line is that you might not think you can afford to turn mere mortals loose on these tasks. The reality is that in the grand theme of things, you probably can’t afford not to. Empower your membership to do things and then view their success through their own eyes and you’ll have a healthy organization for as long as want.

Tim Sloan, Davenport, Iowa, is a high school football, basketball and volleyball official, and a former college football and soccer official.