When I was growing up, we moved about every five years. That meant I was always the “new kid on the block” and the new kid in grammar school, junior high, and high school. Always entering a room, a group, an activity filled with people who had known each other for a long time and had established the rules was an education in itself for a young girl. I tried a variety of approaches with varying degrees of success. I still faced the situation as I matured and went into the work place.
As an adult, I have joined a number of organizations for a variety of reasons and helped to form some too. There is only one rule that I keep in my mind and heart about groups: Always respect the “new kid on the block” and go out of your way to make him or her feel welcomed from the first meeting going forward.
But here is the trouble with that rule. It is frequently superseded by the first rule of most groups: “We started this organization, and we know what we want from it and what is best for it and the members.” Not an unusual attitude at all. But it is a death knell for any serious effort to gather new people into the membership and to get them to stay and to join in the work it takes to make a group successful.
So I want to share three points that those in charge of soliciting new members and those charged with crafting the Women’s National Book Association’s future will hopefully find helpful.
Assign current board and general members to one or two new people at the meeting. After opening remarks that explain the organization’s mission statement, purpose, and current agenda, set aside time for breakout groups. Current members will interview new members in preparation for introducing them to the group. This allows new people to share why they joined the group, what programming they would like to see (workshops on craft; networking opportunities, etc.) and what committees and/or projects they would be willing to volunteer for. (Have a list of these in each break out group to get signatures.)
Back in the general meeting members will introduce their interviewees. The one thing you want to ensure is that current members sit with new members, and everyone is seated in some fashion that is equal for all to see, hear, and be recognized. Set time limits on how long each portion of the orientation is to take and have a gate keeper that makes sure everyone stays on time.
Our minds can shape the way a thing will be because we act according to our expectations. ~ Federico Fellini
A Mentoring Program
Many younger people tend to join interest groups in hopes of gaining insights on how to succeed in a profession, enhance their involvement, and increase their profile visibility. They are looking to those who are successful in a career to share their knowledge. And people who have been in careers that they feel have stalled or who are looking to make a change also hope for some advice and guidance.
One of the most valuable assets of any group is its members and their experience. It costs nothing but time to arrange communication opportunities with those you mentor. With social media platforms, the process becomes more manageable. And when it becomes apparent that a new member has an expertise to share, then they should be moved into a mentorship role.
Sticks in a bundle are unbreakable. ~ African Proverb
Give Power Back to the Members
One consistent complaint made by group members, old or new, is that they don’t feel as if they have a voice in the decisions about the group or the time to be involved in the various activities that may be on the agenda. When I consider this argument, I ask myself three questions: 1) is the activity one that was approved by the general membership with at least a majority margin? 2) Is the date, time, and all of the particulars for the activity agreed upon by a majority of the membership? 3) Is there a committee or other organizational method that operates contemporaneously with the vote on the activity to solicit worker time commitments?
Current organization members, including board members, need to be willing to open up the decision-making processes on what the group will do for activities and what it will spend its funds on to everyone, including its newest members. There must be a willingness to reach out for new ideas, support them, and be sure there is a structure in place to accommodate new ventures. I often hear from long-time group members that no one wants to help or volunteer so “we will just do it ourselves.” But there is rarely any consideration of the fact that the activities are simply not of interest to new or current members and were created without their input. As an aside, I would note that the decision by WNBA to change the newsletter format recently is a classic example of a group responding to member ennui.
Ability is of little account without opportunity. ~ Napoleon Bonaparte
Into the Fold
Like all growth, seeking new members and figuring out how to retain current members requires a certain amount of change. That is one thing that most of us are wired to resist, particularly when it requires changing our ideas and manner of doing things. But everyone needs to feel included and to know their ideas are valued and validated by seeing the light of day once in a while.
So when you seek new members, be prepared to bring them into the fold without folding them so they are out of sight.
Self-esteem isn’t everything. It’s just there is nothing without it. ~ Gloria Steinem
By Pam Ebel (New Orleans) Pam received her B.A. in Speech, with a minor in theatre, from Chico State University, CA, in 1968, an M.A. in Rhetoric and Public Address from LSUBR in 1971, and her Juris Doctor degree from the Loyola, New Orleans, School of Law in 1977. She has been on the Tulane faculty for forty-eight years. She provides a variety of continuing education programs for professionals in social work, health care, law, private investigations, and longshore and insurance practice. She writes mystery and crime fiction and loves the printed word and the books that contain it.