The older Ben gets, the more clear it becomes that I’ve given birth to the male version of myself. Yeah, sure, people used to stop me in the supermarket when he was an infant to remark how the sweet baby looked just like his mommy, and they still say he’s my spitting image today (albeit much cuter and with a bigger, watermelonier head!). But I’m talking about how similar our interests and natures are. It struck me again in the last couple of weeks.
Ben was assigned a project with two partners. They had each individually written a major paper on a topic of their choosing, and now they were matched up and assigned to create a PowerPoint and a brochure for their vaguely-related topics. The two other partners instantly looked to Ben as the leader, and within days it became apparent that the whole project fell to him to complete. Because he didn’t trust leaving his grade in the hands of a couple of slackers, he offered to put the presentation and brochure together if they would send him their material. In the meantime he worked to create the framework for the group’s project, and repeatedly reminded them to send along their material. You’d think with so little for the others to have to do, they’d get around to sending their stuff sooner rather than later. But you’d be wrong. Eventually he managed to pull it all together with his signature flair and style, and the partners thanked him for essentially doing their work.
When I asked him about the experience, he told me that he was not a big fan of working on graded projects with more than one other person, because inevitably there’s someone on the team who doesn’t care as much about it or has a lower standard of work.
I chuckled, because it was like looking in the mirror.
As the queen of volunteer work and an A+ student in Organizational Behavior back in college, I can speak from experience about the perils and challenges of working on committees. Even if you share the same ultimate goals, everybody’s got their own busy schedule, their own standard of work, their own priorities, their own interest or agenda, their own style of accomplishing things, their own pace for responsiveness, their own enthusiasm for the project. And since you’re not getting paid or getting a formal performance review (other than the hearsay of your own volunteer reputation), you can be teamed up with some real winners.
If the cause is right, no one is more willing to step up for a leadership role and work her butt off tirelessly (as evidenced by my lack of butt – because it sho’ ain’t from exercising!) than I. I show up for meetings on-time (often with homebaked cookies!), I get back to people immediately to answer questions or resolve issues, I front-load my work so I’m not asking anyone to help me get it all done the night before, I have a high standard for my results, and most importantly, I insist upon laughing a lot along the way. Because as a volunteer, pretty much my only currency is fun.
Unfortunately to find volunteer partners who work the way I do, I have to comb the endangered species list.
The best experiences I’ve had have been while serving on boards as opposed to committees. With board members, the under/over is more in your favor that you’ll work with people who are more deeply invested in the organization and who undertake projects with stronger commitment. You also have the benefit of explicitly knowing the organization’s goals and missions, and you are privy to discussions about what’s really going on, as opposed to the spin a board wants the general public to believe.
Committees, on the other hand, I now find to be a plausible option to replace Guantanamo Bay. Most of the time, people aren’t really invested, they figure someone else will do the work or at least tell them exactly how and when to do it. And at that point, I’m like Ben. I’d rather do it myself, know it’s done early and well, not lose sacred beauty rest, and not have to depend upon a gaggle of people who end up turning the entire thing into a frustrating, unproductive clusterf*ck. Truly the only work those people are really good for is spreading asphalt on the Road to Hell.
Yes, there are some awesome committee volunteers out there, but organization after organization, committee after committee, I find the crummy ones are one of three persona:
Apathetic Audrey: She’s just not all that jazzed about the project at hand and has no flame under her tuchus. Yawwwwn. Maybe it sounded good at the time she signed up, but now other things in life are much more interesting. Whatevs. She figures it’ll all get done, just by other people –that’s why there’s a committee, right?
Incompetent Irene: This chick can’t get out of her own way. She’s in far over her head, but is too inept to realize it. She overcommits her time and can’t figure out how to juggle everything. She contemplates her own belly-button lint for hours on end and needs 40 people to talk her through every bloody decision. Her work is usually incomplete or inaccurate or unprofessional, but in her own world, she thinks she’s the cat’s friggin’ meow. And to boot, my research shows that 99.9% of all Irenes are fairly humorless souls.
Calamity Jane: You know her—she’s always got an impending crisis on her hands. She’s got the best intentions in the world, but something dramatic is always percolating in her life that pulls her off task and you’re left holding the Hermès. She’s like a hamster on a wheel, always trying to catch up. She’s late for meetings (or doesn’t show up at all) because her hot water heater exploded or the septic tank backed up. She doesn’t return phone calls or answer emails for days because her brother-in-law was just in the hospital and she had to rush out of town and her email box hit its quota so she didn’t even know you were looking for her. She can’t be there to help because her son is sick at home with mono, the dog just threw up all over the living room rug and she found out her neighbor might be losing his job. The excuses and apologies are endless. Sweet as pie—a dear friend—but utterly undependable, unreliable, useless on a committee.
Recognize these characters? I thought so.
About three years ago, after a particularly intense few years of board work, I reëvaluated my volunteer philosophy and decided that it was okay to say no, and I vowed to make my ultimate litmus test whether or not I was enjoying what I was doing. Of course the volunteer paradox is that once word is out that you’re good, you’re in high demand.
But history repeats itself and it’s probably time to step back and reflect again.Maybe I’ve gotta start thinking like a free agent ballplayer (no, I’m not getting Scott Boras to pimp me!), and consider the things that are important to me in my volunteer capacity. Where am I able to make a significant difference? Where is my work respected and valued? Should I only accept board positions and steer clear of committees for a while? And last but most certainly not least, where will I have the opportunity to team up with super people who like to have a little fun while accomplishing outstanding work?
It’s an interesting crossroads. Lots of opportunities and choices. I need the steely resolve not to get sucked back in Michael Corleone-style. And I just hafta keep reminding myself – summer’s coming…summer’s coming…