Dear Nonprofiteer, Should I lead, follow or get out of the way?

Dear Nonprofiteer,

I’m helping out with a benefit for my neighborhood’s after-school drop-in center for kids, the standard rubber-chicken-and-silent-auction evening.  I’m new to the organization so I wanted to start small and learn my way around before I took on any real responsibility.  I volunteered to do the seating arrangements at the dinner, which mostly means calling each of the people who’s agreed to sell a table and finding out the names of their guests. 

Pretty soon it turned out I was also supposed to keep the caterer current on how many tables we had with how many people at each; okay, fine, I had that information at my fingertips anyway.  But then the auction chair started asking what we were doing about item storage, and whether I could figure out how to make the bid sheets feed through our printers, and God knows what all else.  While I’m trying to handle these things the guy who’s supposed to be running the event keeps dodging in and out, criticizing what I’ve done and not helping. 

There are three of us working like dogs on this and then there’s the so-called "chair," whose contribution seems to consist largely of complaining about the fact that there’s not enough staff to support "his" volunteers.  But while he’s bitching about everything that has to get done, he isn’t actually doing any of it, nor has he even made up a list of things that need doing.  Meanwhile, people–not just the caterer but auction donors, table captains, even people whose names I know only because I’ve made their place cards–are calling me for decisions about everything from set-up time to minimum bids and how to handle vegetarians.

How did I end up running this thing, and how can I escape? 

Signed, Sleepless in Seattle

Dear Sleepless,

In the words of the great Joni Mitchell, "Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone?"  The importance of leadership is always clearest when you’re trying to get something done without a leader–or with a leader who doesn’t understand what s/he’s supposed to do.

You obviously understand what a leader does, because you’ve described it: s/he identifies the task, breaks it down into sub-tasks, finds people to assume responsibility for each sub-task and then stays around to provide back-up in case something’s been overlooked or proves overwhelming for the person whose responsibility it is.  You obviously understand what a leader does, because you’re doing it.  But you’re doing it the hard way: without stated authority and without having had the opportunity to define the task in advance and muster the resources necessary to accomplish it.  Still, you’re getting it done–and that’s how you’ve come to be doing it.  Competent people often end up with more than their fair share of the work.

How can you escape?  Well, this time you can’t, because–like most people who get stuck with responsibility–you feel responsible.  But here are some things to think about:

  • Do I care enough about this agency to continue trying to help it out?  If not, just finish this event and walk away.  One of the Nonprofiteer’s friends calls this the "window-washer privilege" of volunteering–if it doesn’t work out, you just waft your hand back and forth and walk out the door.
  • If so, how much time am I prepared to give the group per week/month/year, and what tasks am I willing to do?  "Tasks" could mean "chairing an event" or "serving on the planning committee" or "writing the computer routine that keeps track of silent auction materials." 
  • If the task is narrow enough, you can volunteer to do it and refuse to do anything else: just wave goodbye when your little piece of the project is done.
  • But "serving on the planning committee" is a narrow task only if the chair of the planning committee actually functions as a leader.  So if this guy is chair, don’t join the committee.
  • Even if this guy isn’t chair, on any committee you need to know right up front that you may have to operate without a leader.  And if you’re going to operate without a leader, you’re going to be a leader–in which case you might as well just take the chair yourself.

You’re rolling your eyes–"This is her idea of a solution?"–but the truth is that it’s easier to lead than to follow someone who can’t.  If you decided to be chair of next year’s benefit, you’d make up that list of tasks and go to people–all of whom you know by now, of course, because they’ve been turning to you for decisions–and say, "Will you do this [specific thing]?"  And in the Nonprofiteer’s experience, people will mostly agree to do specific things–and mostly fulfill their agreements–if they’re confident that the person who asked them understands how those specific things will produce the ultimate, general result.

That is, "leadership"–that mysterious quality–turns out to be nothing more than a clear sense of the goal, a knack for figuring out the steps toward that goal, a willingness to ask other people to take on Step A or E or Q, and a commitment to be around during Step A or E or Q to say, "Need help with that?" and after Step A/E/Q to say "Good job!"

You have all those things.  The benefit "chair" has none of them.  He is more to be pitied than censured, while you are mostly to be envied.

But pity or envy or censure aside, here’s the deal: if you don’t want to take on leadership yourself, and you’re faced with a non-leader in the leadership role, then you have to quit; because otherwise you’ll be sleepless–and furious–all the time.  It’s enraging to look to someone for guidance and get nothing; but, since nothing is all this guy has to give, the only way to stay un-enraged is to stop looking and start guiding yourself. 

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