Some notes on community organizations
People join community organizations for many reasons. Some look for community. Some are political animals. Some have political ambitions. Some want to help improve the place where they live. Some are passionate about a particular issue. There are probably as many different reasons as there are people in an organization.
Any successful community organization must overcome a basic contradiction: in order to encourage people to join, it must have very low barriers to entry. It has to be friendly and unintimidating, undaunting in complexity, undemanding (of time, money, energy, expertise). In order to retain members, on the other hand, it needs to be disciplined and effective. And in order to be disciplined and effective, it needs to access people's time, money, energy, expertise, and loyalty.
Any organization that is easy to join is going to have a lot of members riding for free. This puts a tremendous drain on the leaders and active members, and it has a tendency to be self-perpetuating. The committed members make every effort to get things done, but in so doing they let the easyriders off the hook. Why should I give (time, money, whatever) to an organization if it is getting the job done without me? The leaders and activists, meanwhile, feel used and abused; inevitably, they burn out.
One very seductive response to this problem is not to grow. This has typically been the choice of the community groups in Santa Monica, which have mostly settled for being small clubs focused on the issues that move their handful of members. City Hall has liked this solution because it fits comfortably with its manipulative approach to community involvement. Much easier to handle a clique than a mass movement.
A way to resolve the contradictions between recruitment and retention is decentralization. Among the many advantages of decentralization: it lessens the burdens of leadership, it provides more opportunities for effective participation, and it is flexible.
An organization like OPA, for example, could benefit enormously by keeping itself as unstructured as possible. If, instead of modeling itself on the rigid hierarchy employed by government and business bureaucracies, OPA were to think of itself more along the lines of a political movement, many of the difficulties that have plagued other neighborhood assemblies could be avoided.
The real work of almost any organization is done in committee. Small groups are easier to organize, they are better at identifying the strengths and weaknesses of participants, the necessary work is more apt to get done both because it is more focused -- a small group is likely to be organized around one or a few issues that energize its members -- and because there is much greater peer pressure to commit the resources, especially time, needed to complete whatever project is at hand.
If the committees are where the action is, do we need a board at all?
Alas, yes, because there are certain minimal fiduciary and organizational responsibilities that have to reside somewhere; but when in doubt, it is always better to err on the side of too much democracy than too little.
It can be argued that the primary job of a community organization is to inform the community. In Santa Monica, we have a thin political crust resting uneasily on a thick, smothering mantle of bureaucracy. The last thing we need is another level of government. Instead, we should be enabling an informed and active citizenry to influence the direction and resolve of its elected representatives.
Here, offered for further consideration, are a few ideas that have come up in recent discussions of ways that OPA might think about its structure:
Every resident of Ocean Park is a member at large of OPA.
Decisions about OPA policy and direction are made at monthly (if necessary; possibly fewer) membership meetings.
Voting members include: the elected officers of the organization; the elected chairs (or co-chairs) of committees officially established by the organization at a previous meeting (a committee has at least three members); residents of Ocean Park (over 16 years old?) who have attended at least two of the previous three meetings (or, less restrictively, one of the previous two meetings); certain others (the editor of the newsletter?, the webmaster?) if designated by the membership.
Elected officers will consist of a chair, a vice-chair, a secretary and a treasurer, elected annually. The principal job of the chair will be to build the organization by recruiting and mentoring committee leaders; by actively working to increase membership; by acting, when directed to do so by the general meeting, as the public face of the organization; by being responsible for organizing and facilitating a permanent communications committee to inform the members (i.e., the residents of Ocean park) about the issues confronting the neighborhood; and by convening and chairing an oversight committee of elected officers and permanent committee chairs or co-chairs.
The principal job of the vice-chair will be to conduct general membership meetings (including the preparation and distribution of agendas; the vice-chair will be expected to be familiar with and abide by Roberts Rules of Order as accepted and amended by the general membership). The secretary will keep a record of all meetings and act as historian/institutional memory for the organization. The treasurer will keep the books and be responsible for fund-raising.
A goal will be to keep the responsibilities of the elected officers to a minimum to allow them as much time as possible to participate in committees and issues that interest them.
Committees will be considered the fundamental organizational structure of OPA.
All committees associated with OPA must be approved by the membership at a regular meeting. Committees will be designated as official, ad hoc, affiliated or unofficial; the OPA chair will be expected to make an informed recommendation about the acceptance and designation of committees.
* An official committee will be a more or less permament association (probably most often these will meet an organizational need -- newsletter, website, fundraising -- or will correspond to a more or less permanent area of interest -- traffic, parking, noise, development).
* An ad hoc committee will be an officially designated group with a specific task or deadline (an ad hoc committee will go out of business at a date certain or when its assigned task is completed).
* The chairs and co-chairs of official and ad hoc committees will be able to vote at membership meetings; official and ad hoc committees will be expected to report at membership meetings; chairs of permanent committees will meet periodically jointly with officers to discuss and make recommendations on the overall direction of OPA.
* Committees will elect a chair or co-chairs; otherwise, committees will be responsible for their own organizational structure, meeting schedule, etc. Actions taken in the name of OPA must be approved by the membership.
* An affiliated committee is an independent group with which OPA has formal ties (possibilities might include a joint committee on Lincoln Boulevard or with the Main Street Merchants; an organization cleaning Santa Monica beaches; etc.); but (unless the general meeting decided otherwise) it will not have the privileges or expectations attached to official and adhoc committees.
* An unofficial committee/entity will be one that is invited to keep OPA informed of its activities, but with which OPA has no formal ties (Ballona Creek; Main Street Merchants; the Constitution Day Parade; the Library; the Church in Ocean Park; the schools, are possibilities); it will not have the privileges or expectations attached to official and ad hoc committees.
The elected officers and the chairs or co-chairs of the permanent committees will meet together regularly to consider the direction and growth of OPA and to provide general support to the committees, especially to those attached to the membership and communications functions (fundraising, membership, events, outreach, newsletter, website).
In other words, let's keep OPA simple. Let's keep it focused on whatever issues the neighborhood indicates -- by starting and joining committees -- are important. Let's make changes in the rules as circumstances dictate by taking them up at membership meetings, instead of trying in advance to dot every i and cross every t. <http://www.opa-sm.com/>