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Just Say Yes or No!
August 14, 2012 12:55 PM   Subscribe

What's the best way to ask people to do what they say they will do and to answer emails?

I am going to be president of PTA next year. First time on PTA, first time President. Although, I have volunteered at the school over the years and have served on School Advisory Counsel.

In the summer we had two meetings. They went fine but the secretary did not have minutes for the next meeting. On the first meeting I gave her a handout that explained the duties for secretary. I also directed her to tutorials and websites to learn the duties of the secretary. I send out emails to board members. Sometimes they never reply to my emails. I send out emails to ask for volunteers and they (most) do not respond. These are to people who are on the board. Our VP volunteered to call catering companies to collect quotes for a breakfast to welcome back teachers and staff and she never called any of them. I had to once I realized it wasn't going to get done.

I want to say: If you are not going to respond to emails or tell me yes or no, why did you join PTA? Obviously I cannot state it this way? What can I say to convey that I need an answer and I need you to respond! Also, any advice on how to not rip my hair out or get burned out this year.

I am going to recruit like mad once school starts and hopefully I will get some less flaky parents on board but right now, it's rough. Our treasurer is very competent but she is a teacher and I cannot expect her to help out. I need responsible, willing parents. My emails are always professional and nice. What am I doing wrong?

Thanks for any tips or advice.
posted by Fairchild to Human Relations (37 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
 
About the "no reply" - simply add a line "please confirm you recieved this e-mail and let me know if you can help out to do x or not". As it is, you just ask if they can do x, and if they can't, they see no reason to tell you. That's why they don't reply; not replying is their reply.
posted by MinusCelsius at 1:03 PM on August 14, 2012


Treat people as quasi-reliable components in the system and build in some margin. Give people deadlines that are several weeks before when you need it, e.g. ask the secretary to give you the previous minutes well before the next meeting, so there is time to lean on her if it is not done. Make expectations exceedingly clear by sending brief concise emails with the task summarized in one line ('I need you to please take care of X by the 16th. Will you be able to do this?'). Send reminder emails one week before the deadline to check in and see if they will be able to complete the task on time.

Blanket emails will rarely get a response because people can imagine that someone else will reply and will not feel the urgency. Likewise, emails that do not specifically seem to require an immediate response will get put off and dropped. To get a response, craft an email that cannot be dealt with later, cannot be dealt with by ignoring, and cannot be dealt with by waiting for someone else to reply, but rather leave the reader no option but to reply or to deliberately flake. E.g. 'can you do this for me, or should I ask someone else?'
posted by PercussivePaul at 1:06 PM on August 14, 2012 [17 favorites]


Maybe you're too professional and not comrade-like enough? If the other parents are also working outside the home, they don't always want to come home and reply to more work-like missives.

Sending directives to the secretary as to how to do her job seems like a way to offend her. You might want to take a more personal approach, like meeting with her or calling her to brainstorm about how she perceives the position and what's the best way to accomplish as a team the stuff that needs to be done. In my experience, school volunteers often take a lot of hand-holding and chatting to work smoothly. I wasn't great at this stuff myself, probably because I approached it as work rather than "social moms together for a good cause".

In my experience with school volunteers, you have to do a lot of handholding and setting out baby-steps. The catering thing--she probably realized that she didn't know what to ask, and thus, didn't do anything. Write a short script for people like this, and make it very easy for her to ask the questions and record the replies.

You can always try sending emails that have yes/no responses or by sharing a google doc where people can log in and write their responses.
posted by Ideefixe at 1:06 PM on August 14, 2012 [8 favorites]


Your expectations may not be realistic. E-mail is my least-favorite tool to solicit volunteers or check up on progress. Try the phone if people aren't responsive to e-mails when you're checking in to see how the quotes are coming a week before the meeting, for example. Even better, get volunteers at the meeting. Board members I know are much more responsive in person.
posted by *s at 1:07 PM on August 14, 2012 [7 favorites]


If it's a yes or no question, see if you can set up a survey so that they can check yes or no. If they haven't checked either, you can then follow up.

Unfortunately following up and cracking the whip is pretty much par for the course in ... every single organization, ever, in the history of time.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 1:08 PM on August 14, 2012 [4 favorites]


You have to scale back your own duties and state factually that you're unable to provide these services due to lack of volunteering or lack of follow-through.

You can send round an email saying:

We will be doing the following activities this semester:
Activity 1, responsible: Polly Flinders, reports to: me, supported by: Jane Doe and Richard Roe.
Activity 2: ...
Activity 3: ...

We will be discontinuing the following activities this semester:
Activity 4, responsible: Dillie Dollface, reports to: me, supported by: Bessie Body and Narcissus Credit-Taker reasons: lack of follow-through
Activity 5, responsible: none reports to: n/a, supported by: Joe Willing and Angela Reliable reasons: no volunteers to be responsible for process
Activity 6, responsible: Joe Willing reports to: me, supported by: nobody
Reasons: no volunteers to support process
posted by tel3path at 1:08 PM on August 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


This is an inherent problem of running a volunteer organization. Back when I was organizing an environmental campaign, I had exactly the same problem.

In my opinion, you need to reframe this in your head. When dealing with volunteers in any organization, it's good to assume that 40-60% of them will be lazy unmotivated wastes of space who only volunteered so that they could either A) feel good about themselves, B) meet/impress girls, or C) get extracurriculars added to their resume. Volunteers like this are worse than useless, because they don't benefit you in any way and they actively hinder you by accepting responsibilities that they have no intention of living up to, which forces you to scramble to meet deadlines later.

If you anticipate beforehand that approximately half of your volunteers will be useless garbage, you can allocate work more efficiently and shift it onto the hardworking volunteers as soon as you have identified which volunteers are the slackers. You will also be able to spot the slackers much more quickly and efficiently once you understand this principle and are actively looking for them, allowing you to phase them out before their ineptitude disrupts your project or campaign.
posted by wolfdreams01 at 1:14 PM on August 14, 2012 [11 favorites]


Based on my year as part of a co-op executive board, I think that this is par for the course. There were a few of us that did absolutely everything and the vast majority did next-to-nothing.

I think that you need to find 1-2 people that are as dedicated as you are and just divide up all the tasks between you all.

I found that moms that are not stay-at-home had an easier time doing things because they had a bit more flexibility during the day to call around or compile lists or whatever. (Although this was preschool and you're dealing with elementary age, I think... so maybe stay-at-home moms that don't have younger kids would be able to as well?)

In terms of managing, I found that in-person was easier than via email. However, some things CAN be hashed out over email.

After you get to know each other better in person, it becomes easier to send emails like:

"Hey guys. I know everyone is super busy, but we really need someone to step up and manage the bake sale. I can give you support in terms of setting up the credit card payments and printing the flyers, but someone else needs to set a date, reserve the room, get a cash box, and solicit donations from the parents. We need a volunteer in the next 3 days. If you have other questions about what this entails, please email me privately. I know that the bake sale is a pain, but we need that money to pay for the new sandbox."

But again, you will probably end up doing the vast majority of the work and this is just the way it is. Sorry on behalf of someone else that steps up.
posted by k8t at 1:18 PM on August 14, 2012 [2 favorites]


This is really hard for me to remember when I'm writing emails to a group of people, but I always try to phrase the email as if I were speaking to an individual, not a group. Sometimes it can take some extra figuring on your part to convey what you'd like to say to the group phrased as if it's being addressed to only one person. But making it seem like each individual reading your email is an individual recipient goes a long way towards prompting the sort of response you're after, since it resembles person-to-person communication instead of person-to-group.

I also tend to use BCC (blind carbon copy) for all addressees to help with this facade. Each recipient will see only their name as recipient of the email. It also has the bonus effect of eliminating "Reply-to-all" responses that were supposed to be "Reply-to-YOU".
posted by carsonb at 1:26 PM on August 14, 2012 [3 favorites]


. I need responsible, willing parents. My emails are always professional and nice. What am I doing wrong?

Nothing. Well, almost nothing.
Yours is the story of volunteer organizations everywhere. A few people doing all the work, and a lot of people talking about doing the work.

Your task is to find the people who will actually _do_ the work.

Step one is this process is "stop doing the work yourself". If things are getting done, most people will assume it's because of the great work they're doing, not because you are making 3 phone calls while simultaneously answering an email.
The successful way I've ever found to locate useful, responsible people is for things to not get done, thus "inspiring" (read:shaming) them into stepping up.

Step two in this process is to stop e-mailing/facebooking/etc people. You need to either a) call them or b) show up at their house and get a concrete, in person, confirmation. For whatever bizarre reason, people will more readily live up to their commitment if it's "real" which e-mail isn't.

Step three is make sure people know who dropped the ball. Don't "call them out" per se, but in your meetings, make it clear through status updates exactly who isn't holding up their end and that that is why the bake sale isn't going to happen.

I know as a new leader, it's tempting to go all out and try and wow everyone, but that's a recipe for burnout. Your job is coordination and planning, not single-handedly running the best damn school carnival anyone has ever seen.
posted by madajb at 1:34 PM on August 14, 2012 [8 favorites]


Try couching the emails to directly link the work you are asking them to do to something that benefits them and their child. Like, if you are asking someone to call a catering company, say directly that without that call/donation, the PTA will not be able to fundraise for the new whackadoodle gym (or whatever). That way the benefit (a whackadoodle gym) and the consequence (no whackadoodle gym) are clearly identified.
posted by spunweb at 1:55 PM on August 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


Face-to-face is best. Calling is okay. Email can work but individually tailored emails that encourage a sense of responsibility are necessary. How do you do that? Call on your existing relationship, make it personal, discuss the effect of their (in)action.

Hi Pam! Hope you're doing well. It was so great to hear that Bobby got his braces off! Two years, wow. Remind me to send you home with some peanut brittle at the next meeting.

Speaking of, how are those minutes coming along? If we don't have them for every meeting we can lose our national membership (yikes!). Let me know if I need to find someone else to take them, that wouldn't be a problem.

See you soon!
[Your name]
posted by the young rope-rider at 1:56 PM on August 14, 2012 [7 favorites]


I just learned about Doodle, which is a website for scheduling things amongst many people! I'm not sure if it would help you or not, it's definitely not in the more personal direction that everyone else is suggesting, but it does make responding to a scheduling request easier than replying to an email, so maybe...
posted by snorkmaiden at 2:12 PM on August 14, 2012


Nthing that, unfortunately, this sounds extremely normal to me.

I did a lot of volunteer work over the years. I will say that parent-volunteer work was some of the most awful experiences I have had in terms of how I was treated, like no one had to respect me or thank me or anything because, hey, my kid benefitted from it too. I got news for you: My kids are grateful for the things I do for them. They don't piss on me and act like it was merely my duty. (Not saying you are doing this. However, it is something I would have liked to have said to a few other people over the years.)

Volunteers do not get paid. The ones who really want to help are very often in it for Warm Fuzzies. "Please" and "Thank you" are an absolute minimum. They can afford to blow you off because, hey, this gig isn't putting food on the table. When I got tired of my volunteer work "boss" and her crap, I sent in my resignation. For my paid job, I put up with more crap. I needed to eat.

In addition to upping the appreciation factor, you might try adding a little con artistry. I read a book about fund raising where the author unveiled for her volunteers how much money they had raised so far. It was really basically how much money she had raised. It was a big number, early in the season. It put some fire under the seat of all the other volunteers, who thought everyone else was putting them to shame since they had yet to raise one thin dime.
posted by Michele in California at 2:13 PM on August 14, 2012 [3 favorites]


somewhat a rehash of the above, but:

In my volunteer wrangling, I find people who are not getting paid will only do what absolutely excites them. Hell, people who ARE getting paid have to be constantly motivated and tended. I think you're using a bit too much of a work-like approach, and people get very turned off by this. I sometimes think volunteer organizations mainly serve to serve as some sort of psychic release valve, giving people an emotional amusement park of sorts where they feel they have a license to frustrate and annoy task-oriented people by saying they'll do stuff, then not doing it.

Here's my advice:

- as mentioned above, use group e-mail only for general interest announcements. Sure, you'll ask for help with stuff, but to GET help you'll have to e-mail and call people to get specific commitments. And plan for about 50% of people to live up to those commitments, but at least if people have agreed to do stuff as individuals there's a chance. NO ONE replies to group e-mails.
- keep the scale of activity limited to what you're willing to backstop. If someone asks why we're not doing X, Y, and/or Z, ask them to head it up. Offer to help THEM if they'll organize it. Keep it simple.
- as hinted above, it's perversely helpful to acknowledge that yes, this is a hassle. I think it helps the others to realize that you are not someone from outer space who actually gets off on doing this kind of thing. People who step up and do stuff tend to become a target when others who are feeling lazy have to justify themselves by painting the "do-ers" as kind of strange. This heads that off at the pass.
- you will find a handful of people who are actually, like yourself, dependable. Lean on them. Get them together and you handful of people make the decisions. You will attract some criticism from people who like to run their mouths and create drama. Or, if you're lucky, others will just go along for the ride. Depends on the group dynamics, but I find PTAs tend to get some real killer egos involved.
- remember that you probably cannot solve all the school's problems. Depending on your relationship with the school administration, they probably want you to raise a lot of money, and their targets may or may not be reasonable.
posted by randomkeystrike at 2:19 PM on August 14, 2012


1 Stop using email. Use the 'phone. Most people can't read very well. No-one likes email.

2 Expect no paperwork will ever get written. Specifically, you'll never get minutes written. Write a simple action list yourself as you go during the meeting. Mail just that out to everyone immediately after the meetings.

3 Chase the actions by 'phone.

4 Accept you'll do most of the stuff yourself, so:

5 Decide on the small, limited set of things you are going to do. Only do those. You don't have to announce "we're not going to do these things" - that'll only cause problems and induce guilt and sadness. Instead, simply assign these things you won't do to the people who are useless and then don't chase the people. The things you won't do then won't happen.

6 Always be looking for new people who might be as efficient as you. Give them tasks. If they work out, give them more. Be seeking your replacement, or one of the few people who are good.

7 Stop using email.
posted by alasdair at 2:40 PM on August 14, 2012 [3 favorites]


And yes, you're going to be burnt out at the end of the year.
posted by k8t at 2:44 PM on August 14, 2012


People are busy. The PTA is the very bottom of the priority list. Lower your expecations.

Find a few reliable people who have some time on their hands. Group emails are useless.
posted by murfed13 at 2:50 PM on August 14, 2012


Another vote for changing your expectations. For example, this:

I send out emails to ask for volunteers and they (most) do not respond.

... means that everyone who does not respond is essentially stating that they will not volunteer for whatever project. Unfortunately this is to be expected from most people, for most organizations on earth (even volunteer-oriented ones). If you need additional closure for whatever administrative purpose, state a reply deadline in your original email, maybe send a reminder 2 days before that, and then assume anyone who does not reply by the deadline is not showing up / helping out.
posted by Joey Buttafoucault at 2:52 PM on August 14, 2012


Thank you so much for the answers so far. All of them are very helpful.

Some clarifications (not that it matters): Our VP has served for several years. It takes all of 15 minutes to call catering companies. At first she volunteered to call four. She didn't. I called two and assigned her to call remaining two. She never did which is completely bizzaro world. She has very little time and probably shouldn't be on PTA but she wants to be on board for some unknown reason. We have been waiting for her for two months to put her signature on file at the bank so we can write checks to purchase things that we need for welcoming back the teachers (gift cards, copy paper, supplies for a welcome back breakfast). No can do because she still has not gone to bank. I called her today and reminded her that she must have it done by Wednesday or we are pretty much screwed. I won't be able to purchase thousands dollars worth of paper and gift cards and I won't be able to pay caterer.

That story really wasn't necessary, just trying to paint a picture of what I am dealing with.

I was always reluctant to serve on the board in the past because I know it is a demanding job. I work part-time, I'm lazy, I have two kids, and I value my free time. But, when I commit to something I am not going to flake out. I knew what I was getting myself into and expect to show up and give it 100%.

I know I am no victim. I need to stick with the dependable people, keep positive, and follow your great advice. I appreciate every answer. Thank you so much.
posted by Fairchild at 2:52 PM on August 14, 2012


Fwiw: One year, I was one of two parents who volunteered to handle things like parties for my oldest son's fourth grade class. She ended up going through a divorce. I did absolutely everything myself. I think her "contribution" largely consisted of using me as an unpaid therapist to unload on by phone. I ended up glad to not have her underfoot at the actual parties.

I am wondering if you can drive ms. signature-needed to the bank personally? Otherwise, it may just not get done.
posted by Michele in California at 3:11 PM on August 14, 2012


I agree with a lot of what's been said. This is all normal stuff. You will probably be able to find a small number of energetic volunteers who will eventually burn themselves out, and a bunch of do-little or do-nothing types.

Set expectations: You should really have a volunteer-coordination meeting early on, where you can set everyone's expectations, gauge everyone's commitment, and set your own expectations in response.

Minutes: If the minute-taker does not actually have a laptop out at the meeting, pecking away, they are not taking minutes (even then, they might just be on Facebook). If they have not sent the minutes within one day of the meeting, they were farting around on Facebook.

Recruitment: Don't send out an all-hands message asking for volunteers. Ask individuals if they can take on a certain task.

Follow-up: You need to have a face-to-face come-to-Jesus meeting where you say "I can't do this all myself, and I need to know that when I ask you to do something, you'll do it. If that's going to be a problem, please let me know. No hard feelings."

Don't take everyone's inaction personally. Don't get over-invested. They're not paying you enough.
posted by adamrice at 3:15 PM on August 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


Minutes: If the minute-taker does not actually have a laptop out at the meeting, pecking away, they are not taking minutes (even then, they might just be on Facebook). If they have not sent the minutes within one day of the meeting, they were farting around on Facebook.

Ha. This is funny. Secretary had laptop at both meetings we held over summer and no minutes.

Recruitment: Don't send out an all-hands message asking for volunteers. Ask individuals if they can take on a certain task.

Yes! You said it and others have said it upthread. I will call people individually.
posted by Fairchild at 3:27 PM on August 14, 2012


I am the busines meeting chairperson for a volunteer run group. 90% of the people do not follow thru on what they volunteer to do. I have scaled back my expectations greatly and let the fall-out fall. My job is to facilate the meeting, not supervise the other members. It is hard letting go, but for my own sanity I have to..only 2 more meetings to go and then I am done..can't wait.
posted by cairnoflore at 3:52 PM on August 14, 2012


You’re getting good answers here. I’ve been working with volunteers as a paid staffer for more than 20 years. Here are some thoughts:

- Volunteering should not be all about getting a job done. Always point to the skills the volunteer will learn by serving.
- Never, ever, ask for volunteers in a blanket request. They need to be approached personally. It’s not about ego, it’s about making the volunteer feel like part of a team that will make happen something that matters.
- Sometimes, no response is a response. Be prepared to let people off the hook. Circumstances change. Badgering makes everyone feel bad.
- Don’t bother with “please let me know that you received this email.” Sometimes no response is a response.
- Don’t bother with regular follow up emails if they’re not responding. That just makes them feel bad/guilty. Rather, give a deadline. “I understand if you’re not able to meet this deadline, so if I haven’t heard from you by [date], I will ask another person to do it.”
- Do not allow yourself to think of your volunteers as “useless garbage” or the battle is lost. Seriously.
- Always allow people the benefit of the doubt if they can’t do what they agreed to do. Never shame or berate. It’s not about individuals, it’s about achieving common goals.The volunteer who can’t participate this year may be able to do so next year.

Never think of yourself as a supervisor. Leaders articulate a vision of a better future. They emphasize the positive, and the fun, and they make it communal. They’re cheerleaders for the organization’s vision and purpose. “We are a team, and without your contribution, [name], we never would have succeeded like we have.”

Later, down the road, never send a blanket thank you. WRONG: Thanks everyone you were great. RIGHT: Jessica, your assistance at the check-in desk really helped to make our event a success. I hope I get to work with you again!

Bottom line: make it personal.
posted by Short Attention Sp at 4:14 PM on August 14, 2012 [5 favorites]


Yeah, a lot of people don't ever check or answer email. It works for those of us who sit at a desk working on a computer all day, but for people doing anything else, it's inconvenient. Maybe your target audience is in the latter category?
posted by lulu68 at 5:36 PM on August 14, 2012


Ug, Nthing this is common. I volunteered to be treasurer for my college sports team and in the Fall everything fell on me. I ran myself ragged and did not get nearly the appreciation I feel I should have (in fact, I received criticism because some of my work - that wasn't even supposed to be mine in the first place! - wasn't "up to par").

My advice - which will probably be the least diplomatic - is to call these people out, publicly if possible. If the secretary was unable to fulfill her duties for 100% of the meetings she was at, send her an e-mail or give her a call saying, "are you unable to fulfill these duties?" definitely do that one by phone/in person so she can't put off a response. If she can't do the work, boot her. Do it nicely, maybe, but right now she's taking up space and not doing work - what's the point of keeping her?

When you assign duties/agree to duties, don't have someone in charge of part of it, have someone in charge of the whole shebang. The VP's new duty is to coordinate the "welcome back" breakfast, not ust call the vendors. If the VP wants to delegate or whatever, that's their prerogative, but if it flops, it's the VP's deal (on a personal note - the ONLY time someone from my team stepped up to do work was for this very reason. It was part of their ob description to plan the home competition. It didn't stop them from delegating the hell out of it, but I WAS able to relax knowing the maority of the organization was supposed to be on her plate). Make this available on announcements and flyers - "come to the PTA pep rally, organized by the PTA's Lindsay Smith!" At the end of said rally, thank Lindsay in front of everyone else. If Lindsay doesn't show, make damn sure attendees know that Lindsay dropped out of the PTA at the last minute, but you pulled it together.

Personally I don't volunteer only to feel good about myself - I volunteer because I think there's something that needs to be done. If someone's volunteering solely to feel good about themselves you need to boot them hard and fast.

I don't think you should be a dictator or anything, but really, people should know to not volunteer for something unless they actually want to do the gosh dang work it entails.
posted by Lt. Bunny Wigglesworth at 6:01 PM on August 14, 2012


Well, I favorited an answer up near the top, but upon further reflection, that answer really is more relevant to paid work than to volunteering.

I will just chime in to say that email is not the tool to be using. I - for instance - am compulsively responsible about stuff like school volunteering, but the volume of email I deal with every day is so overwhelming that anything not immediately urgent is going to fall through the cracks. Other people don't use email much at all but the result is the same: it's easy to ignore. You've gotta use the phone, unfortunately. Or in-person meetings scheduled around stuff that's happening anyway, like the half hour before school pick-up time, or whatever works for your group.
posted by fingersandtoes at 6:42 PM on August 14, 2012


Can you send group emails reiterating everyone's tasks and the timeframe you need them in, then do group follow ups? Eg, hi everyone, I'm sending this out in lieu of last meetings minutes. Incidentally, Lindsay, when can we expect them? We're legally obligated to have these records (or whatever) There's been none so far and if we don't receive them by xx date I'll assume you can no longer perform duties as secretary and we'll assign this position to someone else. Thank you lindsay for xxx so far.

Onto our VP Steve. We appreciate your great work on xxx but unfortunately without your signature, we are grinding to a halt. We cannot wait any longer, if we haven't received it by xx date so we can pay the caterers we will have to ask you to step down as VP and appoint someone else, or disband the PTA altogether as we can't function without funds. Please let me know your decision. We'd hate to lose you, your efforts at xxx have been amazing. I understand that we are all busy but it's unrealistic to expect 3 people to do the work of 12.

Do the sandwich technique, start with something positive, call them out, then end with something positive.)

Basically it's time to be a hardass, let these people know their lack of action has consequences and maybe if the group knows that they'll be asked to step up because of lazy Steve, that will entice them to put some additional pressure on the other team members too. This will not make you popular with certain people but at this point, do you care?
posted by Jubey at 6:47 PM on August 14, 2012


Minutes: If the minute-taker does not actually have a laptop out at the meeting, pecking away, they are not taking minutes (even then, they might just be on Facebook). If they have not sent the minutes within one day of the meeting, they were farting around on Facebook.

You don't need a laptop to take minutes. Meeting minutes are not typically verbatim - I go to way too many meetings each week and none of the secretaries use computers to take minutes.... but the minutes go out, and they go out quickly and (based on my memory and personal notes) accurately. When I've had to take minutes I simply write down notes on the day's agenda then type them and send them out - usually within an hour of the meeting's end.

It's really not that hard (unless you DO expect a word-for-word copy!). Perhaps you should take the opposite approach - no laptops present (to avoid distractions).
posted by Lt. Bunny Wigglesworth at 6:53 PM on August 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


Yes, this is inevitably a tough situation in which you will have your doers and your slackers.

Accountability--Upon reconvening, have people share what they have been working on between the last meeting and this one. You can let people know that you want to discuss as a group what we have been able to accomplish and what some of the challenges have been. Building in the expectation of public accountability can be helpful. You can also remind people ahead of time (in a non-condescending manner) that everyone will be coming back together to examine as a group what you all have been able to accomplish in building toward X project. This will remind them that accountability is coming up and ideally get them in gear.

Buy In--Seconding spunweb's comment about reminding people and asking to hear from people about the intended impact of the work you are doing. I'm an organizer for a labor union and we start every conversation with workers by somehow engaging their issues (what they care about) before directing them to take any kind of action. Some people on the PTA really don't give a shit but the ones who are really there for the right reasons will connect with this.

Finally, yea, your VP is being completely lazy. Depending on the culture of your organization, it should be ok for you to explain your hopes for the PTA and your child's school, acknowledge that you know she is also committed to these, and then ask her what is going on. If accountability continues to be a problem, raise it in the meeting to the group, but buffer the response you are going to get by having individual conversations with others who feel similarly. Building group expectations would be the best.

Good luck!
posted by sb3 at 9:42 PM on August 14, 2012


Something I started to do a few years ago was to write my emails with the call to action in the first sentence. My prior habit was to wade into the topic and conclude with asking for some result, thinking that if I rationalize or explain it then the request just flows. Nope. Inverting the order has had a dramatic change. Now I start off saying, "I need you to do xxx".
posted by dgran at 5:46 AM on August 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


Excellent advice here, and nthing that dealing with this phenomenon is just basic nonprofit/volunteer leadership skills.

Secretary had laptop at both meetings we held over summer and no minutes.

it's worth debating the actual utility of minutes. Taking minutes is a shitty, boring job and one that people don't like being stuck with. Also, it's rare that anyone looks at them, unless you have a perfect practice of reviewing the minutes as your first agenda item at each meeting. But if you do think minutes (as opposed to an action list) have utility for your organization, then the best way to do it is to open up a Google Doc at the beginning of the meeting, populate the "Share" field with the email list for the organization, and type them as you go, and then send them at the end of the meeting. Right then. Any needed editing can happen later before minutes are "finalized" prior to the next meeting. No farting around, no waiting for someone to "get around" to editing and sending minutes.

Also seconding the phone. Don't expect replies to emails. People have really, really different email habits. Some are overwhelmed with mail volume and are triaging. Some don't read well. Some are never at a desk. Some don't know how to manage SPAMfilters and lose things in the mire. Some are forgetful. Talk to people individually whenever possible. When something as important as the signature card is going on, talk to that person face to face. Email is distant, somewhat impersonal, and static. It can so easily be ignored, especially if the person has some psychological resistance to what it says. It's not the best communications tool for every purpose, and getting people to act is one of the purposes it's pretty lousy at.

Also, do examine expectations. It's clear you have the time, talent, and energy for this, but not everyone does. One of the aspects of leadership is figuring out what people DO have the capacity to do, and getting that out of them, while not trying to get them to do stuff they really don't have capacity for -- whether they know it or not. You'll get to know them and know who you can expect support from and who is doing this out of a sense of obligation or optics or a mistaken self-assessment or whatever. Those of us who step up to lead things are, in some ways, freakish people. We're not normal and we're not usual and not everyone is like that.

To help people who are not born go-getters and leaders, make tasks clear and simple and easy to manage. Re-evaluate your activities: do you need to do everything you are doing? Do you need as many events as you have? As many meetings? Could more be accomplished with less infrastructure? Is some of your work busy work? There is a lot of stuff that goes with longstanding organizations that was developed in the days when middle-class women had empty hours during the day. That's not our world any more, and we need to find ways to do volunteer work that are asynchronous, efficient, and effective with less input. Using something like the Boston Matrix, where you replace the axes with "effort," low to high, and "impact (probably in terms of funds raised?)" low to high - and look at what events do what for you. If the present wrapping gig is high effort but high impact, maybe you keep it. If the flower sale is low effort but high impact, it's a real winner. If it's low impact but low effort, replace/redevelop for higher impact or discontinue. If anything is high effort and low impact, throw that thing out with the quickness.
posted by Miko at 7:55 AM on August 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


Oh, another bit of wisdom on tasks: instead of asking people to show up at every meeting every month and stay involved across the year, consider a model that's more of a short-term, "pop-up" basis. For instance, have one point person or team for the flower sale - they get it going in February, write the press release, reserve the room, and do everything it takes to prepare for a flower sale on May 5. They do the flower sale, and when it's done, they're done. No more meetings, no more projects. That may help you expand your volunteer base - tap a person you trust, even one outside your committee structure, and say "I found a way you can volunteer for a really important project, and it's short-term and self-contained. Everything fits in February through May, just 2 months and maybe 4 hours a week. I'd love for you to run it. Would you consider it?"

Also, say thanks and show appreciation. I'm bad at this because I tend to do stuff without regard for thanks - but leaders are like that, intrinsically motivated (ie a little messed up in the brain), so we don't often realize how much we're taking people's time and talent for granted. We assume they want the same things we do from volunteering. They don't. Figure out what feels like recognition to them, and give it, abundantly.
posted by Miko at 7:58 AM on August 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


Nthing to make sure you thank.

In a business setting, I used to do work for internal customers, notify them that it was ready, and then just not hear anything from them. At all. Didn't know if they ever even looked at the work.

A simple "thanks tel3path" would have been an appropriate initial response until they got around to looking at the work. I wasn't exactly offended, more nonplussed at the complete radio silence. Hello? Minimal basic courtesy you'd expect of a 5-year-old? Bueller? Anyone? If I'd been a volunteer who didn't hear back until the next time they needed something, I would've just not bothered to respond again, because if replying is too much trouble for them...

I am in absolutely no way suggesting that you're doing this, only pointing out that it's amazingly commonplace.

But I think that however much you thank, people in general are just unreliable and volunteers trebly so.
posted by tel3path at 8:10 AM on August 15, 2012


I'd call the veep if it's not feasible to see her face to face. "Hi, I know you're busy. I want to check in about this signature thing. What can you tell me?"

And wait. And see what she tells you. If she doesn't seem to get it, "I'm very concerned about this because if it doesn't happen today then X. I really need your help."

Probably she's just swamped with other stuff and sees this as something that will be ok as long as it's done today. Accept that with grace. When it gets done, be appreciative.

In general, it's been my experience that building alliances with people before you need things from them gets better results, plus a more pleasant situation for everyone.


If it looks like veep won't step up, I'd also call the bank and ask if there is any workaround. The bank does not want you to be unable to do business, so I imagine they'll try to help. Explain the situation as often as you need to and be reaaallly patient. Ask if it's possible to extend the deadline, or what can be done in a situation where the person in the veep's role is unable to come by the bank.
posted by bunderful at 8:24 AM on August 15, 2012


I am appreciating these responses. Thank you.

I agree that a laptop is not needed to take minutes. Some people appreciate minutes to refresh their memory. I jot things down and I can always go over and follow up.

Veep signed the signature card today. She apologized for not doing it sooner. I said no problem, thanked her, and was very pleasant -- I hope. I agree that I am not there to shame people and I want to continue being appreciative. I am also not going to take on more than I can handle. I am going to give 100 percent to the fundraisers and projects the board has planned for the year. Other than that, if someone wants to add something else, I will offer to help if they organize it.

I will be calling members in the future. Tomorrow is a chance to meet a lot of new parents and I am going to try to recruit like crazy without coming off as crazy. Thanks again.
posted by Fairchild at 4:45 PM on August 15, 2012


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