Often, we think of our leaders as the most important people in any group – the Hall Council President or the RA on the floor, for example. No doubt, they make many important contributions that cannot be overlooked. But I would argue that any group is only as good as its membership. Therefore, one of the biggest tasks of any leader is to facilitate the development of the group’s membership.
Many of us have been part of a group that struggled to get members to join and come to every meeting, or perhaps a group where the members were not committed and excited about their role in the group. In these cases, even the most committed leaders may not accomplish much. Often, frustrated leaders point fingers at the group’s membership, citing their disinterest and lack of commitment as the reason nothing gets done. But I think that lack of interest and commitment are symptoms, rather than the real problem itself. And I believe there are steps that can be taken to treat these symptoms. In fact, in working with many student groups, I have observed 6 steps that must be taken in order to develop a healthy group membership, each step building on those that come before.
Step #1: Inviting Participation
Every group has to start somewhere. How are you getting the word out about your group? How do you let people know that they are welcome – even WANTED – in your group? Even if your group already has an established membership (like a residence hall floor), it does not necessarily follow that those members are going to want to become involved group members without some sort of invitation. There are a couple keys to being successful at inviting participation. First of all, you should strive to make the invitation personal. Asking someone to become involved is probably going to be more effective than any other advertising method you can come up with. Additionally, the invitation should be made more than once. Many groups stop advertising and inviting membership once the group has started up, and therefore lose many potential members who just needed a little more encouragement. Lastly, creative advertising can go a long way toward catching someone’s interest – try to think outside the box in how you attract new members to get involved.
Step #2: Welcoming New Members
Once someone has decided to join your group, how are they welcomed? Many newcomers will only give the group one shot before they decide whether they will continue their membership. Put yourself in the place of a new person coming to your group for the first time – what kind of a first impression do you think your group would make? The groups that are the most effective at recruiting and retaining members take the time to thank new members for coming, introduce them to other members, and try to make those new members feel immediately valued.
Step #3: Explaining Rituals and Culture
This step involves teaching new members what the protocol, procedures, and expectations of the group are. How do things work? How do you get things accomplished? What do the different terms and acronyms mean? What are the rules and expectations? A good example of this can be found in any group that uses Parliamentary Procedure – how are new members taught to use this system? Another good example might be when a new resident joins your residential community – how are they taught the rules and expectations of the community (aside from finding out the hard way)? No member will be happy or very likely to stay in a group where they are confused by rules, procedures, and rituals.
Step #4: Providing a Context and Purpose
Why is it important for your group to have members? Many groups take membership somewhat for granted, and do not take much time to ponder why their membership is important to the group, or what the role of each member is. However, if the leadership does not know the answers to these questions, it is not likely that the members will, either. And no one likes to spend time doing something when they aren’t sure why it matters.
Step #5: Motivating and Fostering Investment
A lot of groups never achieve this level with their members. It is not something that happens overnight, nor is it likely to occur without some prior development. Here, you are helping members to feel some ownership toward the group’s accomplishments. Members will start to develop their own sense of purpose, and they will begin to care for the greater good of the group beyond their own rewards for participation. This is when the magic really starts to happen in the group.
Step #6: Recognition
Though this step is listed last here, it should really be woven throughout all the stages of your group’s development. By recognizing people, we are showing them that their participation has had a direct impact on the success of the group. Two little words – “thank you” – can mean the difference in someone’s willingness to continue working hard to meet the group’s goals. Knowing that you matter to the group can foster an immense sense of loyalty, and ensure that you will be a long-term member.
Submitted by Lindsay Jarratt, Resident Director, Western Washington University