July 8th, 2007


on leadership and volunteer management

I've not read Malcom Gladwell's Blink, but I know the general premise, and it seems very true.

The basic premise of the book is this: the more expertise a person has in a particular activity, the easier it becomes for that person to make snap judgements about similar topics. Those snap judgements, it turns out, usually tend to be right.

It's not a particularly earth-shattering revelation. It sort of seems like common sense. I think that the key to it is the part which states that so-called snap judgements only tend to be useful when the person making them has some experience. Experience built up over time is what allows someone to make a QUICK decision that is also a GOOD decision.

Over the past year and a half or so, Fedora has taught me a lot, especially about the common problems that are encountered in a group that is mainly volunteers. I have also learned how to solve some of those problems. When I see the same problems being made elsewhere, I get really worked up and I want to help fix them.

I'll get to my point now.

Over the past month or so, my girlfriend and I have started volunteering with an organization that is a distributed no-kill shelter for cats. They find foster homes for stray cats, and in some cases they make deals with local pet stores in which the stores provide shelter, and the volunteers handle all the day-to-day care for the cats. Once a week, there are adoption-fests for all the animals in the store.

The benefits for the store are pretty obvious. There are pets in-store, which draw in potential customers. Those customers are likely to buy stuff, particularly if they adopt one of the animals. The group takes a fee for each adoption, which keeps them going. It's a non-profit organization.

For the last month or so, my role in all of this has been 100% grunt work -- cleaning all the cages about once a week. This week, however, we went to check out the adoption event, and it was a total disaster. It was obvious to me instantaneously -- much like Blink suggests -- that the folks who lead the adoption effort are in way over their heads.

What is the goal of a no-kill cat rescue organization? To me it is obvious. The goal is to match as many cats as possible with good homes, as quickly as possible. It's a volume business. You need to do QA (making sure the homes are good), but ultimately you're trying to move product (cats).

The people running the adoption event were inefficient, bureaucratic, and were actually TURNING PEOPLE AWAY. There were folks walking into the store who were ready to adopt a homeless cat and walk out with it, and they were being turned away because the adoption "leaders" didn't have their act together. How can an organization with the mission to find a home for cats turn away people who are prepared to offer just that?

So I sat there and bit my tongue for a while. I cleaned up cages. But eventually I had to pull the guy aside and tell him what I thought. I was rudely dismissed, because he had "been doing this a long time" and I hadn't. This was his little domain, and no one was going to question the way he did stuff, period.

But to tie this back around the the beginning of the post -- I don't think you have to be part of any given group for a long time in order to identify broken process or suggest improvements. I don't care if you're making operating systems or finding homes for cats. It's basic organizational, "sales", and marketing skills. And it's all lacking in this group.

I hope that the leaders of the group are receptive to suggestions and new folks helping out. If they prove to be, it will give me faith in the group, and make me think that if I stick to it long enough, maybe change will come. Fedora is very good at this, I think. But it is horribly discouraging to be a volunteer and see one of the people in a leadership position blow you off completely. I hope it's not representative. It doesn't do anything to help scale the organization, and to me seems like a sure sign for long-term failure of the organization. Which is sad because the bottom line here isn't bits or stock options, but actual living creatures that need homes.

Anyway, I certainly will have renewed perspective on all the suggestions that I get about Fedora. I like to think that I'm reasonably good at taking advice from anywhere, and that Fedora in general is good at letting the best ideas win. But after today, I have renewed motivation to make sure of it.