Shona agreed to write this guest post about her experience in the hope that it might lead to further discussion of this important issue. Shona writes:
I’ve been involved in a volunteer role at my local playgroup for two and a half years now and over that time I have taken an interest in the types of people that volunteer compared to those that don’t.
The whole point of a community playgroup is that everyone pitches in and helps, thus keeping operating costs to a minimum whilst providing maximum benefit to the kids. There are parents and carers that take on more formal roles, key holders, treasurer, secretary and co-ordinator. But this in theory should simply provide other parents and carers a framework in which to enjoy playgroup. Simple game theory in practice – everyone contributes a small thing for everyone’s greater gain.
Every time someone vacates one of these formal roles, it is my job as co-ordinator, to fill them. I watch people, I see who comes regularly, I look at who pitches in. I also notice those that turn up late, leave early, and make sure they are no-where to be seen when help is required (we’re not talking anything major here, just cutting up fruit for morning tea, putting toys away, etc).
My approach is to narrow down suitable candidates; it is futile asking the group as a whole – no-one ever comes forward, in fact, if we were in a school yard, you would actually see a line of individuals take a huge theatrical step backwards. I approach people individually, quietly, and ask them if they would take on a small role. I think I have about a 30% success rate. The interesting thing is the dynamics of the group that says yes and the dynamics of the group that says no.
The people who I think will say yes can be described as follows. They have a child of an age where they are not clingy or over-dependent on their carer. They attend regularly, either weekly or more than once a week and know many of the other attendees. They have also been attending for more than 6 months and therefore know how the playgroup works. They attend both for their kids benefit, and their own – they have made friends and appreciate the adult interaction. They generally have good communication skills and have contributed more than their share during their visits.
Amazingly, after they say no (on the grounds that they don’t attend regularly), they stop attending as regularly as if to prove they can’t commit to something.
The people who do say yes surprise me every time. They often have two kids, the youngest usually new-born or very young. They are often new members, but do attend regularly, usually more than once a week. They don’t necessarily know how playgroup works but want to learn. I feel guilty accepting their gracious help – but I guess I am one of those people too.
In writing this, I realise it is quite clear cut. Those that have attended for a long period are used to free riding – why contribute? Someone else will step up. Those that are new aren’t aware of the free-riders, they want to contribute and make connections within the community. Finally, I suspect that the longer a person stays in any of the formal roles, the less likely other people are likely to step into those roles. Perhaps we should only have day-leaders (the face of those official roles) on a very short rotation.
My two years are up, it is time to move on, but any tips I can provide my successor (should I be able to find one), would be more than welcome.