A Facilitator’s Test

This month, I’ve been trying to figure out how to help colleagues take advantage of people who want to help out.  Basically, helping busy people get the help they want and need.  This is my daily task as the manager of a collaboration and meeting facilitator.  As of a couple weeks ago, I’ve volunteered to do it for volunteers, too.

I’m fairly involved in the one-year-old Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition.  One of our main goals is to build our membership, our political clout, our base – and get more volunteers involved so we can get more done.  We want to build an organization that looks like this:

Engagement Pyramid from Groundwire

Engagement Pyramid from Groundwire

For our many successes in year one, on this front we’ve struggled. 

Now, as a facilitator, I know that engaging people takes work.  You have to be a few steps ahead of the project partners you’re coordinating, or the volunteers you’re trying to engage.  You want to have an idea of the tasks that will be assigned coming out of a meeting, and to have the tools people will need to succeed at those tasks with you at the meeting.  Usually, this comes to me pretty naturally.

As a Coalition, most of our core volunteers are so busy doing things that we haven’t had time to successfully delegate work to be able to do even more.

I just finished up* a bike parking initiative on which I did a pretty poor job delegating.  Partly, I didn’t realize how many phone calls it would take over the course of 14 months.  Partly, I didn’t have an easily accessible partner to help.  So, I just did it because it seemed easier.  (In hindsight, it wasn’t.)

I figured this was the same reason other Coalition volunteers weren’t delegating more, either.

That’s not wrong, but I think it’s a smaller piece than I’d thought. Turns out that they aren’t sure what can be delegated.  Or they are aiming for a perfectly organized assignment (when that’s not really possible).  Or they don’t like to dial the phone.  Or they don’t realize they  need to check in between meetings to make sure people did their tasks.  Or they don’t know how to access names in the database.  Or they’re uncomfortable asking a favor (and don’t realize that when someone wants to volunteer, giving them a job is doing them a favor).

I find I’m really committed to this organization, so I’ve taken on the self-assigned (and organizationally blessed) role of helping our volunteer leaders get better at this. Maybe I’m really testing my facilitation abilities.

That’s so far included

  • writing a FAQ with lots of basic tips
  • writing a template to ask for volunteers and thank volunteers
  • making personal calls to people who want to volunteer to get them in the loop
  • meeting with the leaders to help them come up with agendas that are accessible to everyone, and tasks that engage larger numbers of people
  • doing a short training at the board retreat
  • encouraging and offering hand-holding for our leaders
  • coming up with tasks for volunteers

It turns out, it’s easy to find people who want to help us.  Now, we’ll see how quickly we can learn to welcome them, give them  meaningful things to do, and hold up our being-organized end of the bargain.

What suggestions do you have for supporting people who aren’t natural facilitators or organizers to succeed at it?

*This means the racks are installed, and I’m thankful not to be making any more phone calls about it, but another round may be pending. I’m in denial.