September 13, 2014

Another perspective

http://www.experienceoptimism.orgI have been facilitating a discussion on the Optimist International group on LinkedIn that asks members to suggest possible solutions to reverse the decline of membership enrollment in Optimist Clubs around the world. Optimist International is no different from other service organizations like Rotary, Lions and Kiwanis; all are experiencing membership decline.

What I have discovered in the process comes as no surprise to me. It is difficult to suggest a solution because every individual perceives the problem differently due to their personal relationship to the organization. Everyone is involved with an Optimist Club for a different reason. Perhaps before we can solve the problem of membership decline, we need to put our personal beliefs aside in order to understand what the organization truly is.

Optimist International is a network of autonomous Optimist Clubs that develop fellowship in order to perform community service projects on a local level with an emphasis on projects that recognize, involve or celebrate children.

If this were a business model, we might say that Optimist International is the franchiser and each club is the franchisee. Optimist International leases the relationship to the local clubs via membership dues. It then helps develop leaders by delivering training through a district structure and suggests a number of programs in which Optimist Clubs may choose to participate.

However, this organization does not run a business model. It runs on a membership association model which means volunteers are directing the cause. Volunteers are the franchisers and the trainers as well as the franchisees and the trainees.

Moreover, volunteers are the leaders and the followers in this relationship-based oligarchy.

Volunteers have different motivations than professionals. First, their involvement may be quite selfish. In a list compiled by Susan J. Ellis of Energize, Inc and published at, motivations to volunteer, it is easy to see how "to become an insider," "to feel proud," and "to build your resume," among others, might be seen as selfish.

Second, their skills are diverse. Unlike a professional setting where skills are developed and utilized in order to advance the company where they work and thereby their compensation, volunteers join organizations in order to advance their own knowledge and abilities without remuneration. That can lead to a mismatch when those who are deemed trainers are perceived less qualified than those who are receiving training.

Third, the time to lead is short. When a volunteer rises to the top role in a membership association, their tenure in that role is generally one year. One can imagine how it would be difficult to affect change in that little time. That is why the culture must change along with the leader who is on the rise.

Membership organizations do this poorly and believe me, many corporations have difficulty with this as well. In Corporate Culture: Illuminating the Black Hole, James Want explains that corporate culture is important to the overall effectiveness of an organization. He identifies seven typical cultures: predatory, frozen and chaotic are deemed the worst; service and new age cultures are deemed the best; and falling in the middle are the relationship-based political and bureaucratic cultures most often seen in the membership organization structure.

According to Want, the latter are relationship-based cultures. The political culture is a "who you know" culture while the bureaucratic culture keeps people in their place based on where their position falls on the organization chart. Since a volunteer has little to gain for advancing through the ranks, the will to buck the system may be lacking. In this instance, culture and the  flow of advancement may be driving Optimist International and other service organization into an inevitable downward spiral as new associations are started that thrive in an open culture environment.

There are no easy solutions to the problem of declining membership in service organizations, but I firmly believe that the path begins with communications and engagement. Those who are interested in seeing Optimist International and its counterparts survive and prosper will participate in the conversation. In this way, we'll move ever-so-slightly and slowly towards an open culture, one that allows everyone to be informed, contribute and lead, that has been deemed most successful for growth.
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