People Are Difficult

Humans are difficult creatures. This has nothing to do with being liberal. People are often just difficult to work with and teamwork is necessary for a succesful activist organization. Indeed, personality conflicts can hurt organizations more effectively than anything else. This section includes advice on how to overcome problems related to working with other humans.

I. Volunteers are hard to manage.

Knowing how to get an organization of volunteers to work well together is a feat in itself, and the primary responsibility of the president and vice-president of the Columbia Dems.

1. Keep it real. We're all just volunteers.

Everyone is a volunteer. No matter how much a student organization attempts to look like an organization in the real world, recognize that your entire membership is made up of student volunteers. Recognize that there is no real vertical hierarchy of command in your organization and thus giving an order to someone will not be a sure successful strategy to get someone to do something. At best you are asking for help from a fellow volunteer or asking one of your volunteers to help you out.

What motivates a volunteer? Different things motivate different people, but it is possible to determine what factors motivate most volunteers and to design your institution in order to provide as many of these incentives as possible.

  • Power, responsibility, creativity. Students don't like doing bitchwork jobs, they like doing jobs where they are given real responsibilities, are allowed to accomplish their goals with creativity. The Activist Council and Umbrella Groups were designed in order to allow non-Executive board members a way to take on leadership in the organization according to these principles.
  • Encourage people to work on projects they care about. Student volunteers should work on projects they want to work on. Institutionally, this means very carefully articulating the specific responsibilities of every position and allowing members to run for those specific positions, as per the third of the McKenna Amendments. The responsibilities of a position should not come as a surprise to a student volunteer; while applying for the position they should show that they are excited about completing the responsibilities of a particular position. Further, the Activist Council was designed specifically to achieve this goal also by telling all applicants that they will be organizing four specific annual events.
  • Self-imposed deadlines. Students don't like to be told when an assignment is due by another student, and that we're working with an all-volunteer organization makes a deadline order lead to even greater resentment. Work with volunteers to come up with deadlines that they decide upon so that you when checking in with a volunteer on the progress of an assignment.
  • Last-minute assignments. The other side of the "self-imposed" deadline coin is to never give out last minute “assignments” because they’re not going to get done and they will just piss people off. Better to just get it right the next time by asking people to set there own deadlines on projects they care about.
  • Opportunities for promotion. Volunteers have to be constantly encouraged to seek another position in the organization if they are working at an-entry level positions like associate activist, First Year Rep, or entry positions within the Roosevelt Institution. This will remind them that their work will be rewarded with an official position.
  • Titles and official positions. Students will work harder if they know that their participation in the organization is officially sanctioned. The creation of the umbrella groups program and associate activist titles helped respectively to expand ad-hoc participation in the Dems and involvement in the activist council.

What to do when the task isn't that fun?

One of the hardest types of volunteerism to manage is a Dorm Storming operation or organizing a postering run, because it represents a moment when your volunteers are doing important work that doesn't necessarily offer power, responsibility, or the ability to be creative. There are specific tactics one can follow for each of those activities to get the most out of them, although both share a few similar characteristics.

  • Leadership. The President must always show that the most important person in the organization is equally responsible for doing the most menial tasks.
  • Work in teams. Doing dumb work alone is boring.
  • The last-minute assignment rule applies here more than anywhere else - if you give someone a last minute "assignment" to do some dumb and boring task you will be seriously unmotivate your volunteer, not to mention how unlikely it is that the task will actually get done.

That said, the Dorm Captain program was an experiment in building an institutional solution during the 2004 -2005 year in order to turn these dumb and boring activities into activities endowed with the power, responsibility, and creativity which could turn them exciting jobs that students would want. The program is now defunct, but could be restarted in time to help with recruitment for the 2008 presidential campaign.

2. Much depends upon a leader.

Make no mistake, at the end of the day, the organization runs better when a natural leader is in charge. Someone who knows that their real job as president is to be the perfect volunteer coordinator. They have a vision that they inspire others to work towards, they know how to manage personality conflicts, and they know how to empower other volunteers within the organization to take leadership.

Yet before we answer the questions, (1) how to get great natural leaders in charge of the organization, and (2) what to do when a mediocre, or even worse, destructive leader, is put in charge? It is important to recognize both the problems and limitations of being a college institution. Almost every student cycles in and out of the environment every four years, and most student leaders have only one or two years available to be in charge of an organization. This means that the organization only needs to shelter itself from bad leadership for at most two years, but also can't rely too heavily on the skills of natural leaders, because, again, they'll be in charge two years at most.

In dealing with the first issue, how to get great natural leaders in charge of the organization, it is important to build an organization that attracts the best organizers and leaders into the organization during their first year at college and then offers opportunities for promotion.

First, you need to build an organization that allows for students to instantaneously take part in planning our most interesting and largest events as soon as they get to college. The Activist Council is an example of this because it is a consensus based organization with more horizontal leadership. Second, you need to build an organization where students are encouraged to take their own initiative and be leaders in action. Allowing for this level of freedom attracted uninvolved leaders who organized the “Alternative Spring Break” in New Orleans and Project 3/20, which commemorated the third anniversary of the start of the Iraq War, during the 2005 - 2006 year.

In dealing with the second issue, what to do when a mediocre or destructive leader is put in charge, it is important to build a large and active membership, and elections that give voters as much information as possible, so that more people are voting with more information in order to elect the best leaders for the group.

More than anything else, focus on electing people who are (1) reliable and (2) good team workers, yet make sure not to choose someone to lead if they are a reliable but a bad team player as that is the way destructive leaders usually sneak into positions of leadership and do their damage.

3. Trouble with a particular person in the organization.

Have people who are difficult to work with take on leadership roles for projects that they can organize by themselves and which won’t hurt the organization if they fail. That said, it is the job of the president more than anything else to manage the personality clashes between people who are difficult to work with and everyone else.

And if you think that you might be the one who's difficult to work with it's important that you recognize how much more effective you will be as a leader if you reach out to people you consider good leaders and get their advice.

II. At the end of the day, we're at the mercy of the administration.

Ok, so not everyone is a volunteer. At any school, particularly one as bureaucratic as Columbia, one of the biggest challenges to funding, programming, and getting anything done is getting approval from administrators. The keys to navigating any bureaucracy are knowing what you need and knowing how to get it. Remember, administrators are also a variety of human.

1. Knowing what you need.

Organization. Organization, organization, organization. Never present an event to an administrator without a clear idea of what that event should look like in every aspect. Most importantly, you should know exactly how the event will happen in terms of the timeline, the people involved, and the goal of the event. You should be prepared to answer questions like the following:

  • How many people will be attending?
  • Will there be press at the event, and what is needed to accomodate them?
  • What set-up is needed—podiums, A/V equipment, chairs, signs?
  • Will there be a security presence, either private or provided by the school?
  • Will there be transportation? From where, to where, and for whom?
  • Will the event communicate a political message that could be controversial?

The answers to these and other questions will obviously vary from event to event. It's helpful to think through every aspect of the event from the perspective of as many different participants as possible—the process will help you avoid missing details like risers for press, loudspeakers for protesters, tables for distributing information, etc. But the most important question you should have an indisputable answer to is this:

  • Who is in charge?

Of course, any number of people may be involved in the planning and execution of the event. But when you're asking for a lot of different things from a lot of different people who may not be familiar with the way the organization works, they have to know that there is one person who is able to answer all of their questions, and take care of anything they're not so happy with. ONE PERSON should know all the details of the event including who the participants are and who to talk to about fixing a problem. We'll call this person the Point—read more in the next section.

2. Knowing how to get it.

Always keep in mind: the administrators you're talking to do this for a living. You know what you need, you know that your event is going to be the best event on campus all year (or century, whatever), but they are dealing with zillions of other student groups that have their own world-stopping events. Be careful not to act like you're entitled to anything, even if you know you are— every question they answer, every form they fill out, every phone call they make for you is a favor for which you will be eternally grateful.

Ask questions, even (especially?) when you know the answers. Ask what forms you need to fill out, then fill them out. Ask who you need to talk to about getting approval to chalk on campus, or to get a structure from which to hang a pinata, or to get a sound permit for a 24-hour reading. Ask for permission or approval as new ideas or issues come up. Ask because it keeps you and them informed of what's going on, and because they know better than you. Really.

But here's the catch! And here's where the Point comes back into play. You (the Point) are in charge. You know every aspect of your event, so you know the answers to the questions they'll have for you. It helps if the Point is the same person throughout the planning process—you'll have established the relationships with administrators already, so they'll trust you and trust that you have the answers they need. Along those same lines, it helps if the same person or people act as Point from event to event.

And most importantly: THE THANK YOU NOTE. Every administrator you talk to over the course of the planning process deserves a thank you note, maybe even some cookies. The event was a success, and they were a huge part of that. Yes, it was your organization that made the process so pleasant, but they were the ones who gave you what you needed. The thank you note will make them smile, and it will remind them of how on top of things you are (every time they look at it hanging on their bulletin board). The next time you go to ask about something, they'll remember that. Don't overdo it—ONE THANK YOU NOTE A YEAR (maybe two, if there are more than one particularly complicated events) will suffice.

One final note: sometimes, you'll have a truly unique problem that the administration hasn't really dealt with before. For example, maybe you want to hang earth-shaped pinatas in the middle of campus so that people dressed in George Bush masks can whack them after signing a pledge to conserve energy. Again: Ask. A lot of administrators will welcome a challenge, particularly if it's funny (or they agree with it). Let them help you solve the problem, and then give them due credit (Dear Mr. Administrator: Thanks for your help with our Global Warming event! We never would have thought to use a basketball hoop without you. Enjoy the cookies!).

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