Productivity Shearing in Voluntary Organisations


There's a recurring problem I've observed in voluntary organisations: potential volunteers have different levels of ability and experience, across different areas. There is a key area that affects the cohesiveness and effectiveness of a voluntary organisation: if volunteers have to interact with each other, how well do they do so?

The sorts of interactions I'm concerned with are really things like these:

  • organising when people are available for meetings
  • selling tickets for events
  • circulating news
  • tracking ongoing activities

For some things, it doesn't matter whether everyone uses the same system, but for others it does:

I do some litter-picking around my neighbourhood occasionally. There is a local group I'm part of which organises litter-picking, but which is largely focused on other issues; anyone can just turn up, group or no group, with a glove and a shopping bag and pick up some litter; you largely do not need to worry about how good anyone else is at litter picking: your gloves and bags don't need to be compatible with their gloves and bags.

That group also collects and shares information about problems around the neighbourhood. This is where the trouble starts: we could store the information in our heads, or on paper, or on a specific computer, or on a networked computer. Individuals will have their own preferences, and some of these preferences can be very strong, for two reasons:

  1. some systems are more familiar than others, and it costs time to become familiar;
  2. some systems are much more efficient than others, and it costs less time to use the more efficient systems, so long as you're familiar with them.

There is therefore a minimum and maximum level of efficient that each individual is prepared to work at. Some people, largely down to personality traits, are willing to put in a lot of time to acquire familiarity with new systems which might prove more efficient, or which at least seem to be more effective for co-operating with their colleagues. Others less so.

In an organisation where people are getting paid for what they do, the organisation can simply use its resources to train people up on the systems that it wants, and mandate their use. In a voluntary organisation, much more leadership, persuasion and strategy is required.

Now this only matters where the systems used by one volunteer have any impact on the systems used by another volunteer, but that is a very common occurrence.

Therefore, there will be potential tensions about the range of levels of efficiency that individuals are prepared to work with in a situation where:

  • people want to co-operate,
  • but are not being paid to do so,
  • and where there is a need to use compatible systems.

Some individuals' minimum or maximum levels of efficiency won't even overlap. That is to say, there will be no system which everyone is happy using for booking events, because some only want to use Eventbrite and some only want to use cheques and postage stamps.

This is the "shearing" effect: the cohesion of the group is undermined because the requirement for efficient use of technology affects its members differently depending on how comfortable they are with particular systems. If you push people too far outside their comfort zone, they'll lose interest and volunteer for a different group instead.

The choice, then, is to handicap technologically proficient volunteers by making them use systems that may be orders of magnitude less efficient than what they use in other areas of their lives, or encourage a possibly painful learning process to get other volunteers "up to speed", or some combination of the two. One unexpected barrier may be that people like inefficiency because it gives them something to do, and if that means more productive individuals stop volunteering, so be it. None of this is happening in a vacuum: there are plenty of other things people could be doing with their time, and the rest of the world will on balance be getting more productive as time goes by.

There is, then, a particular danger for organisations that rely on volunteer labour. Persuade your volunteers of the strategic importance of investing time in learning the most productive collaboration systems, or perish!