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The politics of communication
in the volunteer nonprofit

text and photos by Bob Alman
layout by Reuben Edwards
Posted August 20, 2003

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The first version of this article was published in 1994 in the Croquet Foundation of Americaís Monograph Series on Club-Building, Organization, and Management. Each time I contemplated republishing it for a wider audience, I decided that it was too dull for an online magazine: no compelling graphics, little anecdotal material, and a subject that calls for a dry expository style. That is still true - but so is everything in this essay! So Iím going to publish it anyway, putting this caveat right up front: This is heavy going, really dull stuff, and over-written besides. Worst of all, you already know everything in the article. But like me, you need to constantly remind yourself of the absolute truth about communication and volunteerism in action. To endure this little read, you will have to find a way to invest yourself in the process. Imagine yourself in the position of volunteer or a recruiter or manager of volunteers. Then welcome the flashes of recognition you will find in this article: things you already knew but had not consciously recognized as a guide to your own work in the volunteer sphere now or in the future. Sorry, thatís the best I can do. Read on, if you can stand it. Adding your own observations and anecdotes might make it more bearable for us all; to do that just click on this READERSí FORUM ON VOLUNTEERISM and follow the online menu.

First, letís acknowledge that this essay isnít just about croquet clubs, it applies to all volunteer-based organizations, and we have all volunteered for something, so we have a common experience of what itís like.

Now take a look at your own motives for volunteering:

(1) You were bored and didnít have anything to do on Wednesday evening anyway, so what the heck!

Thatís a valid motive, nothing to be ashamed of. Itís the basic pattern for the way millions of people live their lives, not just in Palm Beach, but everywhere modern conveniences and prosperity have given people the mixed blessing of lots of leisure time to consider the quality of their lives, the purpose of life itself, and an incredible array of choices about what to do with oneís time. Which brings us to the next point....

(2) You want your life and your time to count for something. You want to do something worthwhile - maybe even something that nobody else could or would do, or at least wouldnít do as well or as thoroughly as you.
Guess what? Thatís the end of the list. Thereís a longer one later in the article, but mostly, that handles the motivation, and this knowledge is 90 percent of what you need to know about this subject IF you keep these two points in mind always, both as volunteer and manager.

Number (1) means that at the very least, the volunteer work must be diverting, it must be a reprieve from boredom. At the middle of the scale, the work gets to be interesting, and maybe even fun. At the top of the scale, you really like and enjoy the company of the other volunteers and the manager...and youíll come again.

Number (2) means that you have freely chosen to put your unique stamp on some worthwhile endeavor and get it done right. Maybe you were helping someone accomplish a job that was too big for them, or maybe you were taking a piece of a big project and doing it well and completely. Either way, you earned and deserved the satisfaction that comes from a job well done. You werenít paid, it was a gift, and your willingness to give that gift really does make you a special person, it is the just basis of the kind of pride you feel in giving volunteer service.

Why bother?

Within the relatively small world of six-wicket croquet, you and your club could accomplish almost anything. It's a world run by part-time volunteers, and with just a little extra effort and the cooperation of a small group of friends who enjoy working together, your club could actually become famous for the quality of your programs, the excellence of your facility, and the professionalism of your tournaments. Why should you want to something like that? Because, thatís why!

The only thing needed is a group of people who really enjoy working together, and who are able to cooperate in achieving mutual goals.

As a corporate communications professional, it is not surprising that I should be strongly biased in favor of the quality and quantity of communication as a measure and determinant of management effectiveness in volunteer organizations. The frequency of newsletters, the design quality of printed materials, the tenor of advertising and promotion, and the regularity and format of organizational meetings are all important success factors.

I have found, however, that even more important than the written or otherwise programmed communication is the organizational context into which those communications flow. The tone of the organization is set, almost entirely, by the quality of the relationships of the members.

With no scientific basis whatever, and purely for the purposes of this essay, I would like to distinguish four distinct styles or channels of interpersonal communication in the organization as...

- Information
- Acknowledgment
- Training
- Relationship

If each of these components is not managed effectively, no amount of expertise will make up for the lack. If you don't have alignment on basic goals, a pleasant social environment, friendship and general good will, your club could become a breeding ground for the viruses that kill good ideas, positive intentions, enthusiasm, and all the early promise of the enterprise.

So the quality of interpersonal communication, against a background of pleasant social interaction, ought to be a primary focus of the volunteer organization.

Survival is not the goal

If there is a good reason why volunteer organizations so often fail to get much done, it may be because their managers learned how to manage in the context of the corporate world, where mere survival - keeping your job and your salary - may be your most important work objective.

Most of our work experience - and that of the volunteers managing a croquet club - comes from the "dog-eat-dog" corporate world. In that make-a-living business mode, communication has traditionally been a very simple, straightforward, top-down affair. When management wants you to know something, they tell you. If you respond appropriately, you will survive in the corporate business world (or, for that matter, in the army). If you don't, you will soon be out of there and looking for a salary somewhere else.

There is certainly nothing wrong with this top-down mode of communication, in its place. In its place - in the military or in many private businesses - a top-down command style of communication is efficient and effective. But it is usually not the best style of communication in small organizations like croquet clubs where volunteers are expected to get the work done. They will not labor under the obligations of a worker at the factory or a soldier in the army; they have to be persuaded and enlisted and they demand satisfaction in whatever they do.

Information: It should be provided to everyone, everywhere, at all times, in great abundance

In a corporate culture in which control of information is held as a key to organizational power, many executives actually hoard information. If they shared it, someone might use it to gain a competitive edge. I sometimes think that some managers handle information in this stingy way out of habit alone. I have worked with managers who religiously tell no one anything and absorb information they are given like a black hole. Such managers generally don't last in the volunteer organization. If the rule in the business world is, "if in doubt, don't tell," it is just the opposite in the realm of the volunteer club. If you're not sure, communicate it. Tell about it in newsletters, in meetings, on the phone, in private conversations. Make a policy of telling everyone about everything all the time. Risk boring people and telling them the same thing more than once.

Why? Because broad-based alignment and participation is essential in the volunteer club, and information allows maximum access to all the forms of participation your organization must elicit in order to thrive. By including people, you are building your primary resources: volunteer workers, donors, project managers, sponsors, and ultimately, clients.

Communication: Discussion: Consensus: Alignment: Action: Result

But there is a much more important reason for spreading information around in all directions. You guarantee that everyone concerned will be empowered to have a voice in making important decisions in the organization, which means: * You will have the benefit of everyone's comments and considerations about important issues. They will all be included; they will all contribute to the final consensus.

* After the decision is made, everyone will have been informed beforehand, with an opportunity to propose alternatives. So carping and criticism after-the-fact on a decision created through consensus will cause no damage. The alignment created in the process will add weight to the decisive consensus.

Put up, or shut up

Along with the commitment to open communication comes an implied commitment to responsible communication. It is the job of management to see that people make responsible criticisms. There is a fine line between suppressing criticism you don't want to hear and insisting that the criticism be constructive - but the line needs to be recognized nonetheless.

Often, such criticisms need to be directed with such managerial coaching as: "What alternative do you propose?" Or, "What steps do you think should be taken next?" Or, "If you think that needs to be done, are you willing to do it before the next meeting?" It is amazing how effective such coaching can be in moving items towards completion. The instigators either "put up or shut up;" they either invest themselves in genuinely improving a plan or proposal or, on the other hand, at least tacitly give their blessing to the current plan. The end result is the same: a broadly based, organization-wide alignment.

The main goal of the policy and practice of open communication is alignment and consensus - a depoliticizing of issues and personalities, so everyone is focused only on what it takes to be successful and have the enterprise work. In such an environment, when issues come up for voting by the board or membership, a solid consensus will emerge from the extensive information exchange and discussion. Often votes will be unanimous.

With especially difficult or potentially divisive issues, it is wise to allow lots of time - perhaps even months - for discussion and conditioning, not just in meetings, but also at parties, courtside, and in the club newsletters. Given time, the process tends to grind down to fundamental agreement - or at worst, a general boredom that will allow management to make a move that must be made.

In those cases where after all consideration and through discussion there is still honest disagreement among intelligent people of good will, the divergent positions will not be defended with violent passion, and the minority opinion will be able to accept and be responsible for the minority opinion.

"Thank you" is the preferred coin of payment

Most croquet clubs depend on volunteer support and participation - active involvement of a cadre of unsalaried workers who expect and deserve to be treated as partners. Where the coin of payment in the corporate world might be money, salary, benefits, and other survival imperatives, in the volunteer domain the coin is acknowledgment for participating in a praiseworthy enterprise with other people - for the personal satisfaction of taking advantage of an opportunity to make a difference, to have an impact in a sphere largely of one's own making, to accomplish something which otherwise would not get done or be done as well.

In the volunteer organization, the president and the officers should take as much care in delivering this payment as the paymaster would take with a weekly payroll. It must be given in a timely manner; no one must be left out; and it must be given in just the proper amount. To avoid devaluing the currency, itís just as important to avoid giving too much as giving too little.

Itís easy to simply forget to say "thank you", especially when the value of the contribution a volunteer is making is obvious and/or frequent. To forget is a mistake, and we have probably all done it. If you forget to say "thank you," youíre not delivering the appropriate payment, and the volunteer will understandably be upset and resentful. Donít let it happen.

"No martyrs need apply"

Now that weíve established exactly what kind of payment the volunteer demands, we can address the difficult issue of incipient martyrdom. Someone who does something without demanding reward or payment is by definition a martyr. The president of the croquet club bears an important responsibility to see that there are no martyrs - to make sure, in other words, that everyone gets paid according to a just and reasonable scale.

For the moment, we are assuming that there is no payment in money beyond expenses. When the coin of payment is acknowledgment and thanks, the accounting equation is the same as if services for cash were contracted, followed by payment. In this case, the service is CONTRIBUTION, and the payment is ACKNOWLEDGMENT.

Itís not starving children, for godsake, itís only croquet!

Volunteers should never be victims. From their point of view, they must be responsible for receiving full value from their contribution. If theyíre dying for the cause, something is wrong somewhere. If you see somebody getting nailed to a cross, make them get down immediately and walk right out of there and find something else to do, somewhere else.

And the same thing applies to you - especially to you - as a manager. Whenever I find myself taking things much too seriously - all too frequently, Iím afraid - I have to talk sharply to myself to make myself listen. I bark out something like, "For godsake, itís not starving children, itís only croquet! Lighten up!"

"If only they knew how much I do..."

Everyone has, I suspect, entertained this bitter thought: that no one knows or appreciates what I have done to make this project or enterprise work - how much there was to do, and how diligently I did it. Precisely because I did it thoroughly and well, it seemed to everyone else easy and effortless.

And only you know that the apparent effortlessness is the best proof of the excellence of the job you did.

People should be paid (acknowledged and thanked) in proportion to their results, and not in proportion to the degree of worry, effort, and struggle they put into getting something done. If the job seems to be producing worry, effort, and struggle, there are two possibilities: either the person is looking for attention and acknowledgment; or more and better training is necessary.


If you are to manage your croquet club effectively, you will not make the error of failing to acknowledge someone appropriately because they make their contribution look effortless. The form of your acknowledgment should suit the contribution and the occasion: It could be as simple as a one-sentence thank-you; or it could be a 12-course testimonial dinner with speechifying local celebrities and gold-plate award.

The rules of contribution and acknowledgment apply to you as much as to anyone, and maybe more. Whenever you ask yourself why you have invested yourself in such an enterprise, your answer is apt to be, "because no one else could or would do it the way I'm doing it - because I am making a difference." If you can't honestly make that reply, you may be burned out in that particular job and ready to move on to another one.

"I donít get paid for this, you know..."

When you encounter work that is sloppy, incomplete, and generally irresponsible, don't accept some such excuse as "Well, after all, I don't get paid for this." We have already established that the just payment for working on projects for your ever-so-worthwhile nonprofit enterprise is a full measure of gratitude and thanks. Unfortunately, it is part of management's responsibility to acknowledge poor results as well as good ones.

This is not as odious a task as it at first appears. The context of your "debriefing" of work that did not produce the expected result is one of correction for the future: for future projects of the same kind, and for the future of your work with the volunteer. Reviewing the processes of the work, analyzing the order and priority of the steps involved, examining the operating assumptions, putting in correction wherever it is needed - all of that is a valuable process for you and your club, and it is potentially valuable for your volunteers as well.

If you are successful in such interactions, your volunteers will be hooked on the challenge of working with you, knowing that you will communicate with them fairly and honestly, and in the certainty that when you thank them for their good work, the acknowledgment is absolutely genuine - not watered down with false praise.

Well-trained volunteers must clone themselves

To maintain momentum, it is essential to establish a tradition within your club of trained volunteers passing on their skills and their jobs to others. That applies especially to the key jobs on your board of directors, or for members who manage your main teaching or revenue-generating programs. They should be requested to train others in taking over their job or jobs before they step down. Otherwise, all of these jobs and the training involved will pass back to top management, who will be perennially involved in basic training rather than expanding the success of the enterprise into new areas.

To prevent the most gifted individuals from simply being burned out, establish the practice of moving them to other jobs or even expanding their responsibilities to give them a bigger challenge and an opportunity to have a bigger impact. The last act in turning over a successful job is training someone else thoroughly in it, so the president and the board will not have to go back to Square One and cultivate a new person in the job.

Often, the volunteers who appear to be "burned out" in one job need only a change of pace. Someone weary of a "behind the scenes" job like club treasurer might flourish in a program management position - and vice versa. Generally, it's easiest to recruit volunteers for "glamour" gigs - teaching novice players on the lawns, organizing or decorating for the party, for example. The real heroes of your club may be the ones who are willing to do less visible jobs which are, perhaps, more vital to the club's health.

The standard of training is perfection

If your croquet players are not paid for their work, they are volunteering for the satisfaction of making a contribution and being acknowledged for it. Therefore, their participation should be whole-hearted. In their salaried jobs, in their family relationships, in their army service, and in any other interaction in which their participation is not always entirely voluntary, they might, perhaps, be forgiven for engaging in these relationships with less than wholehearted devotion to perfection. In all of those circumstances and the pressures brought to bear in those situations, what people most want to do is survive, to cope, to get by.

But those are not the motivations people bring to your croquet club. They are in your club purely by choice. And the standard you set for them should be nothing less than perfection . Whether they say it or not, whether they know it or not, that is what your volunteers really want. They want to be given an opportunity to excel. If you do not set the highest standard, you will actually be cheating them. You know this is true, because people who are reasonably sane have pretty similar values, and you know that what you want, yourself, is to excel, to make something happen, and to have that sucker really work.


To honor your volunteers and the work they do, the standard must always be: PERFECTION.

Within that standard, your volunteers will always be challenged to give their best - which is what they always wanted to do, anyway, if given the chance. Within the standard of perfection, your acknowledgment of their contribution will actually be worth something. You will have given them exactly what they wanted.

What is your personal standard for the work you do? If it is PERFECTION, you are likely to attract all the support you need for a high level of training, development, and achievement in your croquet club.

Many volunteer organizations, if not most, are unable to avail themselves of high-tech communications resources that would enable them to fulfill their missions much easily. In a company with a corporate communications office and staff, there would be no necessity for volunteer phone trees, envelope-stuffing parties, and so on. But all that elaborate electronic stuff is child's play, and you donít need it. The essential qualities of communication can be mastered without funds and without expensive technical resources - person to person.

Summarizing a wordy essay

It will be hard for a volunteer-based nonprofit to fail if management applies a human technology of communication as outlined in the four points:

Information - The flow should be constant. There can never be too much. To withhold it is to strangle the creative interchanges vital to the health of your club. By sharing information, you invite the full participation of everyone in your organization, and you virtually guarantee alignment and support for whatever your organization does.

Acknowledgment - Thank and honor the volunteers and the donors and the sponsors without whose generosity and spirit the club would fail. Club officers are responsible at all times for seeing that acknowledgment is promptly and equitably distributed as just reward for the various contributions people make to the success of the club.

Training - it should be a continuous and self-generating process, assuring the short-term success of the club and providing the foundation on which it can grow and expand, with the president and officers unencumbered with the ongoing task of training replacements for departing volunteers. The opportunity for training - for learning and growth people can apply in their private lives and other pursuits - is one of the benefits that keeps members volunteering to do the work, when they might just as well limit their club activity to playing croquet.

Good Relationships - The quality of relationships within your organization is a determinant of the quality of all the aspects of communication examined here. If all the other aspects of communication are handled well, this one almost takes care of itself. Where there is openness, honesty, mutual respect, good humor, and commitment to common purposes, how could the interpersonal associations within an organization be anything but enlivening and rewarding?

In an organization in which information flows freely, acknowledgments are abundantly given, and the opportunity for growth and training within a standard of perfection is a constant, you can expect enthusiasm, high spirits, creativity, and mutual support among a group of people committed to doing what they're doing and enjoying their association with each other and with your organization while they're doing it.

Click here to share your own observations in the READERSí FORUM ON VOLUNTEERISM.

The author, since retiring from full-time corporate life two decades ago, has formed, organized, or managed several volunteer-based organizations - including the 50l-c-3 San Francisco Croquet Club, the first two-lawn municipal croquet facility in America. He presently lives and works in West Palm Beach as sole proprietor of WicketSports Unlimited, editor of the croquet websites, and marketing and development consultant to the National Croquet Center.

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