March 26, 2013

Passion mashin' - Reinvigorate your community group

THE OPPORTUNITY FOR some passion mashin' attracted around 30 people who clustered in the meeting room at the Randwick Sustainability Hub in February this year for a workshop led by veteran social change expert, Les Robinson. Les has worked in the social change area for decades, both online and offline, and consults on programs, campaigns and in skilling-up practitioners.

Les' workshop, entitled Passion Mashin', was about reinvigorating your community group and about what it takes to grow a volunteer team and it was aimed at, and attracted, members and leaders of voluntary community associations mainly from the Eastern Suburbs.

The diversity of groups those attending were working with was considerable, spanning the Alternative Technology Association, the Sydney Alliance, the Open Australia online democracy team, bushcare, Friends of the Malabar Headlands, Transition Towns, animal rescue, local government, The Bower recycling centre, Youth Food Movement, Early Childhood Environmental Education Network, Boomerang Alliance (campaigning on container deposit legislation), a Rotary club, Maroubra Communicators, the Curb Collective — a women furniture salvage cohort who reclaim furniture put out for hard rubbish removal which they rehabilitate for sale at The Bower — a family history society and someone working with homeless people.

What do we need? Delight!

Passion Mashing introduces delight into the work of voluntary community groups.

Delight? Yes, and you're right — it's seldom something that appears in the work of groups and for many it's something well over the thought horizon. Delight occurs, according to Les, when people encounter something that is not predictable or conventional.

It's often the result of mashing together two or more different things. As an exercise, try mashing your current volunteer work with something you love... like, say, permaculture and coffee to produce Coffee Lovers Permaculture, an event that started with a tasting of good coffee... sort of like wine tasting but with more caffeine.

Delight is motivating. Delight is contagious.

Community groups are ephemeral

Community groups are often ephemeral — they come into existence to work on some project then dissolve when it is complete or when their membership falls below a critical minimum number. Some persist, like the service organisations — Rotary, Lions and the like — though participant numbers may fluctuate. Fluctuation in membership is a common phenomenon among community organisations.

Many of us would have experienced those groups where the same old core of people meet and complain about their inability to attract new people or to make progress with their work. They become insular, inward looking and enter a self-reinforcing spiral of negativity. The meetings become drudgery and attending them becomes not the looking forward to getting together with friends and colleagues with a common interest to make something happen but something somehow dispiriting.

I recently had a conversation with someone who was experiencing just these symptoms of ineffectiveness in his community group. I put it to him that the group was tired, perhaps almost expired. They had earlier success organising events but that time seemed to have passed. Now they were the same small group meeting regularly and failing to attract new people. I said that perhaps the group had finished its work, that its mission was complete, and that perhaps it should be shut down. Doing this opens opportunity for the now-freed small group participants to move on to something new.

Shutting something down so as to open new niches and fresh opportunity is the principle behind 'creative destruction'. While the principle is commonly applied to the development of new technologies products and industries, perhaps it also applies to social groups.


Passion Mashin' was one of several workshops and courses in the Randwick Sustainability Hub's program of leadership education. Using discussion and groupwork, participants learned that:

  • change has little to do with information
  • it is a social process passed from person to person
  • you need to do more than simply providing information or awareness raising to create change our conversations about what we do is the most important thing in getting people to join our groups
  • that attracting people to new groups is about the conversation and not about marketing
  • marketing and persuasion don't work 
  • older groups need new people as well as social diversity in their leadership — the same old group of people is unlikely to produce something new 
  • that we struggle with the conventional, received wisdom of what the group is all about, and that this can be our own worst enemy and should be vanquished 
  • in recruiting people to groups we ask them to do things they have never done before, to take a risk, this can produce anxieties about adequacy, knowledge and standing out and they risk humiliation — group leaders should recognise this and and address it first-up 
  • leaders need to treat people as equals for voluntary groups
  • offering different types of activities is important to bring life to the organisation
  • to provide a little informal education around the theme of the group and to bind members socially incremental improvement is important — that's doing the same thing better, differently 
  • conviviality is important
  • mix the work with the social
  • share food
  • enjoyment is critical.

The real competition

The time demands of the workplace can inhibit participation in community groups, however Les pointed out that the workplace is not the greatest competition to participation. What is, is the alternative uses for a person's spare time... it becomes a choice between the voluntary group or time with friends, watching a video, social media, taking a walk, exercise or sport or just chilling out with a glass of chilled white.

This is why conviviality is so important to community group meetings. They need to be more social-like and less business-like. Ensure there is food and the drinks of choice.

Reinventing yourself

Sometimes, groups can become so humdrum and uninspired that the only course to sustaining themselves is to reinvent themselves. That means changing what your group is and does. It's a fundamental shift, it opens new opportunities and it's exciting because it focuses on passion — the personal passions of members and the collective passion of the group. As Les points out, volunteers seek an important cause, sociability, recognition, satisfaction, fun.

If your group is dwindling and in a downward spiral, what would you do to reinvent it? How would you make it, and thus the work it sets out to do, attractive, fun, convivial? Is it time for creative destruction?

How to find out more

To find workshops and courses through the 3-Council Reduce Your Footprint program go to: City East Community College

Les Robinson:

Les has a new book out call Changeology, you can have a preview of a pdf version of chapter one here


Story and photos by Russ Grayson, April 2013, graphic courtesy Les Robinson

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1 comment

  • Thanx Russ, this is a very helpful posting. Every community group in which I've been involved matches/ed the description under the heading above, "Community groups are ephemeral".

    We know that for a tree to grow a seed must 'die'. Holding onto that seed serves no purpose other than delaying it's new incarnation.

    I take heart from the words, "perhaps the group had finished its work, that its mission was complete, and that perhaps it should be shut down. Doing this opens opportunity for the now-freed small group participants to move on to something new." :-)

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