One of the biggest challenges in starting a Sanctuary has been learning how to successfully engage Volunteers. With no paid staff, we need Volunteers to take ownership of Shep’s Place, to empower them to act creatively. I thought the best way to achieve that was to give Volunteers a hand in shaping all aspects of the program. I split the project into a number of different areas (Management, Outreach, etc.), set up Work Groups for each, and enlisted Volunteers to help.
It went well at first, I thought. We had a lot of enthusiasm at the Open House and the first Group meetings. However, as the weeks wore on, attendance declined. The last five meetings have had an average attendance of 2 people, including me. The numbers signed up for upcoming meetings look similar. Clearly, people have been voting with their feet, and sending the message that they don’t care for the Work Groups.
Naturally, my first reaction was disappointment, tinged with despair. I’d driven everyone away before we even started! But after a moment of panic, I put on my scientist hat and tried to analyze the problem. As a robotics coach, when kids got frustrated, I reminded them that nothing works perfectly the first time. The important thing is to figure out the problem, make adjustments, and try again. And if that works for robots, it should work for a dog sanctuary, right?
So, why did people stop coming? Could it be fixed?
As I thought it over, I had a bit of an epiphany. Obviously, our Volunteers all want to help old dogs, or they wouldn’t have signed up in the first place. So the problem is not lack of commitment. However — and here’s where the light bulb went on — working with dogs is NOT the same thing as working on programs for dogs. Regardless of their doggy devotion, not everyone wants to work on managerial stuff like policies, procedures, and forms. Most people don’t enjoy that type of thing, or feel it is their strong suit. When I volunteered at Great Plains, it sure wasn’t to develop handbooks or programs; I just wanted to walk dogs. So, duh, it shouldn’t have been a surprise that others felt the same way about Shep’s Place.
Once I realized that, I felt much better. I should have expected that only a portion of the Volunteers would be into the policy aspects of building Shep’s Place; in hindsight, it’s a no-brainer. Many people (most?) don’t want to create the program, they just want to help out with the dogs once it’s up and running. And that is completely okay! We very much need those people. It’s not a problem at all. It’s just a fact we have to acknowledge and build around.
Sooooo… Time for a change in philosophy. Let’s not expect every Volunteer to be involved with planning; we’ll leave that to those who are interested. If that’s not you, it’s cool, no big deal, just chill out until the dogs arrive. Until they do, though, we’re going to ask the planners to carry the ball for us.
We’ll start by doing away with the eight Work Groups; they were too much. I thought about consolidating down to 3 or 4 groups, but figured that pretty much the same people would show up each time anyway. So it makes more sense to put that group of hardcore planners into a single committee, and let them decide everything. We’ll call it the “Planning Group.” They will be responsible for all aspects of the program at Shep’s Place: renovation, outreach, volunteer training, adoptions, the works.
So who can be on the Planning Group? Anyone who wants to be! It’s meant to be self-selecting, not exclusive. Anyone who is willing to show up and help is strongly encouraged to do so. If we get a lot of people at a meeting, we can break into smaller groups and work on different things. I’ve got a feeling that we’ll have the same 4-6 people every time, but that’s fine; we can work with that.
I figure we ought to meet once a week. Some people can’t do Mondays, others Wednesdays, so how about we alternate meeting days? We’ll do Monday one week, Wednesday the next, then Monday, and so on.
Since we’re going from 8 groups to 1, there will be a lot to do, so we should meet a little longer, say from 6:00 – 7:30. I will post an agenda a few days in advance, so we can be prepared and jump right in. Unless I forget. Which happens a lot.
So what do you think about the Planning Group: good idea, or not? I think the Work Groups aren’t, well, working, but this is not the only solution. I am open to other suggestions. Shower me with your insights, dog people!