Sunday 11 November 2018

The life cycle of a voluntary organisation

By Trevor Watkins

For my sins, and my vanity, I have been involved in starting up or serving on many voluntary organisations during my lifetime. I have observed a recurring cycle in the lifetime of these organisations, which I describe below. The reason I have written this down is to remind myself and others that all these things have a season, and that is the way it should be. Nothing lasts forever.

Stage 1 – Enthusiasm

The first and most fun stage of forming an organisation, characterised by wild enthusiasm, excitement, animated discussion, grand plans and few obstacles. This stage usually lasts about 9 days, and is often very productive. Committees are elected, constitutions drawn up, letterheads and logos designed, meetings held, bank accounts opened, websites set up. Everyone is keen to help, nothing is too much trouble, bonhomie abounds.
Everyone knows everyone, and everyone loves everyone.

Stage 2 – Establishment

All good ideas devolve into work. This is the tough 2nd stage, where enthusiasm must be translated into progress. Procedures and protocols need to be agreed upon. Differences in expectations need to be resolved. Formal responsibility structures need to be approved. Real work taking real time needs to be allocated to specific people. This stage usually last about 9 weeks, or 3 months. The scope of the task ahead becomes apparent. Some are discouraged and leave. Disagreements arise. Competing egos emerge. Some become disillusioned and leave. Those that remain submerge their egos into the aims of the organisation, work hard, achieve a few early successes, and settle down for the long haul.
Everyone knows everyone, but not everyone loves everyone.

Stage 3- Consolidation

The organisation is established, its has an identity and a footprint in the target community, it is providing useful services. The original grandiose plans are much reduced, the membership is growing but nowhere near the target, the cashflow is weak, the successes limited and the failures many. One or two individuals are carrying the organisation along, but are showing signs of strain. This stage occurs about 9 months from initial setup. This is the critical point at which the organisation either continues and grows, or shrivels and dies. If the load is shared equitably across active members of the executive, if people take responsibility for their portfolios, if the organisation is achieving its aims, however modestly, if there is enough money, members and goodwill, then the organisation may survive. If the load is being carried by just one or two, if they are exhausted and disillusioned, if everyone is just going through the motions, then better the organisation dies. Things always end badly, because when they are going well, they do not end.
In the worst case, no one knows everyone, and no one loves anyone.

Stage 4 – Survival

If the organisation can get through its first year, its first AGM, if it can elect a new and rejuvenated committee, if it can convince its membership to pay a fee for a 2nd year, then it has a fair chance for survival. Now the organisation takes on a life of its own, independent of the current leader or executive. The members see more value in the ongoing existence of the organisation than in its demise. The next big milestone is to survive for 9 years. Not many make it, but some do.

Now, many know and love the organisation.

Stage 5 – Division

If the organisation turns out to be successful, if its membership grows and its cashflow improves, then sooner or later someone will decide that the organisation could be better managed, at less cost and with greater results. Commonly that person will be a disaffected member of the executive, or a disgruntled existing member. Sometimes a completely external party will decide that this is a profitable model worth hijacking. Allies will be sought, aspersions cast, issues invented, and the energies of the organisation will be spent on internal bickering. Finally, after much thrashing around, the organisation will split, and a new, reformed wing will hive off and begin operations in competition with the parent body. Although painful, this process is a useful measure of the health of the organisation, and is rather similar to cell division in living bodies. Competition breeds efficiency and innovation, and the overall purpose of the organisation is enhanced.

The market has worked its magic and now provides a choice of similar organisations.

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