Rules and borders

It’s been a while since I posted my blog entry arguing that an organization’s volunteers are rarely the most qualified people available, but rather the most devoted: that groups are run by people full of committment but lacking crucial skills. That entry was meant to be the first of a three-part series on volunteers, hobbies and small-group politics; obviously I’ve been a little sidetracked.

This entry is part two. It asks: If a group’s volunteers have few or no useful skills, what do they end up doing for the group?

In that last entry I said that a club may never reach its full potential, or fall apart, if those in charge aren’t up to the task. In the real world, of course, no volunteer board is ever composed of nothing but fuckups or competent men; most people bring at least something, but not everything, to the table. Some people, however, bring very little, and have to be kept busy — or they bring their massive egos along with whatever else they bring to the table. The problem, you see, isn’t so much the work, it’s the authority — it’s when volunteers use their small duties to transform themselves into little tin gods. And, as I said last time, for many volunteers, the group is an awfully big part of their lives.

What they do is throw their weight around.

Teresa Nielsen Hayden has coined an name for this sort: the Fruit Punch Czar. To become one, take a nominally important duty and use it to throw your weight around. Or what Bruce Cohen calls the Parent-Teacher Association Catastrophe: “[T]hose with the least power and ability to use it well, exercise it the most in the most inappropriate ways. Every such organization I have ever belonged to or observed has had a minimum of one member whose self-imposed task it is to organize everyone else in ways that matter not one whit to any outcome in any alternate universe anywhen, but that the organizers consider vital to the ongoing existence of Civilization As We Know It.”

This throwing around of the weight comes in many forms. I know of at least two: Rules Enforcer and Border Patrol.

Examples of volunteers who appoint themselves Rules Enforcers are easy to find. Lacking a more concrete means to contribute, they interfere with others’ contributions; lacking any big-picture awareness of why the rules exist, they bog down the ability of the group to function with their nitpicking. Wikipedia moderators who zealously police the guidelines but lack the knowledge to work on an encyclopedia entry. Committee members who bring proceedings to a halt, triple the meeting time, load up the agenda with procedure, and take personal offence if a motion has not been properly seconded (these people eat secretaries for lunch, but never run for the position). Event volunteers who ruin everyone’s fun with a strict interpretation of the very rules set up to allow everyone to enjoy themselves. These are the people who make you stop coming out.

The work of the Border Patrol is more subtle, but it’s the single most effective way a volunteer of little talent can wield power. Most groups are desperate for more people: membership dues keep them out of the red, and new volunteers have to come from somewhere. But the Border Patrol finds new people threatening, whether to themselves (you never know, someone might try to take their punch bowl duties away from them) or to the group (which, in their view, is practically perfect in every way as it is right now, and must not change). So they obsess about making sure that the wrong sort of people (as they define it) are kept out — out of the club, off the executive, away from the events — and they want to make damn sure that they’re the ones who make those decisions.

I’ve been in organizations whose pickiness astounded me. Not only were they far more closed to newcomers than other organizations who actually had considerably more cause for care and discretion, they would turn down actual offers of help. Don’t get me wrong: discretion can be important to an organization. Nothing can nuke a group’s credibility more than a wayward member who flaunts his affiliation with it. But the Border Patrol is, well — it’s like airport security: it’s too busy worrying about nail clippers and shoes to spend any time thinking about actual risks. And discretion is often a slippery slope that leads towards cronyism.

The late, somewhat-lamented Ontario Herpetological Society once organized field trips, until it was reported that a participant on one trip came back and poached the hell out of their field herping site. Then the person in charge organized field trips separately: to attend, someone known and reliable had to vouch for you. The club folded, but the activities continued on a personal basis: you no longer had to pay your membership dues, just be on friendly terms with the right people, who now wielded even more power than they did when they were in charge of the OHS. I didn’t have a problem with the setup — vouching seemed less evil than poaching, after all — until I found myself on the other side of it earlier this year. Field trips had diminished from members-only to reliable-people-only to friends-only. The clique’s having a great time, with no outsiders to spoil their fun. Too bad the club died years ago.

But friends-only field trips can also occur inside an organization by controlling the information flow. That’s hard to do nowadays with the Internet: a club member can subscribe to mailing lists, calendars, RSS feeds and so forth to find out about upcoming events. One club I know still informs members of events by telephone. I wondered why, until I realized that the telephone is the ultimate in deniability: volunteers can’t possibly reach everyone on their call lists in time (and before call waiting and voice mail, they could always claim that they tried calling you). Add last-minute organizing so that the event doesn’t make it into the newsletter in time, and you can more or less control who comes to your event by making sure that the people you don’t want can’t find out about it in time.

The problem with the Border Patrol is that they treat open-membership organizations as though they were house parties. More to the point, their house parties.

They should stick to the punch bowl.

Update: It seems that I’ve been stumbling across examples of the Iron Law of Institutions: “[T]he people who control institutions care first and foremost about their power within the institution rather than the power of the institution itself.” It illustrates why people would rather keep an organization small, and maintain control of it, rather than have it grow and succeed.