Combating the "Same Six Syndrome"
Ideas for identifying and fighting this syndrome so your volunteer efforts can grow and thrive
Having a small group of the same volunteers run a project puts that project at risk of burn out, loss of energy, and other problems. Learn how to combat the "Same Six Syndrome" below.
Most volunteer efforts that enhance communities are accomplished by small groups of highly committed people. Margaret Mead’s famous advice--“Never doubt that a small group of committed individuals can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."--inspires many volunteer groups. These small groups put in long hours doing challenging work that has no direct reward, and for which the results may be years away.
In many communities and neighborhoods, these few, motivated people seem to be involved in most of the effective community efforts. They probably organize several projects or events annually, serve on multiple committees, and help lead several local organizations. If someone wants to get something done, begin a new project, or build an organization, they often seek out these key individuals, who are almost certainly overbooked. But most of them seem to accomplish more than many other people do combined.
This phenomenon is what many community organizers refer to as the Law of the Few. It is also the source of the common saying “if you want something done, give it to a busy person.” To most volunteer efforts, the Law of the Few is a source of great inspiration. Like Margaret Mead’s advice, it shows us that our small group can have enormous positive impact, despite the size of the tasks that lie before us. And many small volunteer groups are extremely effective. Small groups build camaraderie, make communication easier, and can adapt more quickly than large ones.
Yet, the Law of the Few has a negative side. We call this the Same Six People Syndrome. Sooner or later, it has a negative effect on most volunteer and community groups. If left untreated, it can result in burnout, a failure to engage new people and generate new ideas, and a loss in the energy and effectiveness of the group. This short guide will provide some ideas for identifying and fighting this syndrome so your volunteer efforts can grow and thrive.
What Is It?
The Same Six People Syndrome results from the Law of the Few going to extremes. When most community projects move forward because of the energy and commitment of a small, select group, the natural tendency is for everyone to rely on that small group to get everything done. For instance, many people may simply assume that an annual community event will be organized by the same people, because it has been for the past several years. At the same time, this small group of organizers may be exhausted and stretched too thin among too many commitments.
You might be tempted to respond that small groups can accomplish a lot, and that your group has been very effective. This is often the case--a core group of committed people is both necessary and wonderful. At any given moment, your group might be energized and effective. But relying too heavily on a small set of key people for too long, however talented and committed they may be, will limit what you can accomplish.
A community effort has gone from the inspiring side of the Law of the Few to the Same Six People Syndrome when burnout is near. I’ve heard many small groups say things like “Well, it’s just us again and we’re trying to do everything. Why can’t we seem to get more people involved?” At this point, the size of the group has become its most serious limitation. Stated most simply, the Same Six People Syndrome is an over-concentration of leadership among too few people.
The Same Six People Syndrome can affect any community effort, and given enough time, it will affect almost every effort sooner or later. It tends to be most severe in small towns and in small localized neighborhood efforts, where the population, and therefore the base of leadership, is smaller. But it can also appear in larger communities.
The first stages of the Same Six People Syndrome are fairly easy to recognize. First of all, look at the groups that come together to plan community events and projects. If you see the same small set of faces at the meetings of different groups, with nobody new or unknown joining, you are probably afflicted to some degree by the Same Six People Syndrome.
To tell how much your group is affected, ask a few simple questions. Ask the members of your core group if they think the group is too big, too small, or the right size to accomplish the things that need to be done. Ask if they’ve felt like they’ve lacked new ideas, wanted more input from other people, or have felt tired or burned out. If multiple people answer yes, the Same Six People Syndrome is affecting you negatively and you need to do something about it.
You should also look for some signs of a more advanced case, with more far-reaching effects on how the group operates and performs. One sign of a more serious problem is when someone comes up with an idea that has broad support, but nobody steps forward to help organize it, and the idea dies a quiet death as a result. Or, the idea may die outright because those who would implement are the same people working on many other efforts, and everyone feels overwhelmed. Another symptom to watch for is when someone suggests an idea that would usually generate enthusiasm, but instead it’s greeted with heavy sighs and “Well, I guess I’ll do it” responses. Even worse, people may stop suggesting new ideas because they assume that they will either have to carry out the whole task themselves, or that the response will be negative because people are so overwhelmed.
In many ways, the Same Six People Syndrome has much in common with a person who’s caught a cold. Just as every person eventually catches a cold, every volunteer effort will be affected by the Same Six People Syndrome sooner or later. But, also like the common cold, there are some fairly simple techniques that can treat the problem. Here are some things you can do to keep your volunteer efforts healthy and growing.
What You Can Do
1. Actively draw in new people. Every effort relies on experienced leadership. However, you should continuously be seeking new people to help plan and organize projects, even when your core group seems solid. That way you’ll always have an influx of new ideas and connections, more people to share coordination load, and a base of new leaders to step forward when others inevitably drop out over time. Many groups make the mistake of continually relying on their core group of volunteers only to find out too late that there’s nobody to take their places. Of course, finding and new people is easier said than done. Here are some specific ideas.
A. Who has a stake in what your group is doing? Think about who’s not engaged in your projects, and find out why they are not at the table. Start relationships with those you don’t know or those who haven’t been part of your efforts. Spend a fair amount of time listening to what motivates them, what their interests and needs are, and how being involved might fit their needs.
B. Look for leaders among your episodic volunteers. You may have some volunteers who have helped out a few times on your projects—pulling weeds, planting trees, participating in other volunteer efforts—who have the skills and interest to play a larger role. Approaching them with the offer to take on more responsibility is a way of recognizing their talents and preventing them from becoming bored with more mundane tasks they’ve been doing thus far.
C. Seek out input and give people an opportunity to act on their suggestions. Ask your episodic volunteers, program participants, and others in your community for constructive feedback on what you’re doing and how you’re going about it. Those who provide good, thoughtful ideas probably have potential to help out your group, and the fact that they took the time to provide thoughtful feedback likely indicates some interest in getting more involved in turning their suggestions into reality.
D. Create tangible, social and fun opportunities. Many people want to be more engaged in their communities, but don’t step forward because the tasks seem daunting or they fear the time commitment. Most of us at some point have been scared off from projects because “that sounds like a lot of meetings.” Develop ways for people to get involved that have a social, fun, and educational “hook". Once they get to know you and understand first-hand the reasons you’re working on these projects, they’ll be more amenable to helping plan projects in the future.
E. Adjust your outreach strategy. Minor changes in the way you get the word out can have major impacts. Changing the time and place—from a government office building to a nearby community center, for example, and from just after work to later in the evening, could result in entire room full of people who have never participated before, simply because they weren't familiar with the location or the time of day hadn’t worked well for them. Continuously making changes and connections can draw new people.
F. Actively start relationships with those new to the area. Many people new to an area are seeking to learn about the community, meet new people, and make connections for their work or business. This is when their enthusiasm is at its highest, and can be a good time to draw them into your efforts.
2. Welcome new people and new ideas. When you bring new people on board, be sure their first experiences are positive and welcoming. Be sure that you and the rest of the group are open to new ideas and the sharing of leadership roles that always occurs when new members join. To someone new to a group planning a project, here’s nothing more disheartening than the phrases “we’ve always done it like this” or “we tried that five years ago and it didn’t work." Make sure new people feel part of the team and that their ideas are valued. At the same time, be sure that longtime group members don’t feel overly threatened by new members. If they’re doing a good job and are comfortable in their roles, a newcomer with new ideas may seem threatening. Balancing the dynamics of established group members and newcomers takes ongoing effort and communication from everyone involved.
3. When a new person helps plan a project, stack the odds in favor of success. When new people come on board, make sure their first few tasks have a high likelihood of success and have tangible results. This allows new people to grow into the group and move from these successes on to bigger tasks. One particular technique is to have the experienced members of the group mentor newcomers. This provides the newcomer with a source of expertise and a link to the history of the groups’ efforts while providing some relief for the mentor. And more often than not, the process of mentoring a new participant and sharing knowledge with them revives the mentor’s energy and enthusiasm.
4. Work in teams. Most people join in the planning of volunteer projects for two reasons. One is that the project needs to get done and will improve the community in some way. Second and equally important is the sense of camaraderie that comes from working on something with your neighbors and friends. Many groups have a tendency to work in isolation, with people working individually on their own part of a project. This may achieve the first goal, but won’t achieve the second, and you can often lose people as a result.
5. Plan realistically. While there’s always a place for big, ambitious goals, be mindful of the energy and time your group can realistically commit to. Ask everyone to be honest about the time they can commit, and then look at the tasks you’re hoping to accomplish. If the work exceeds the amount of time available, there’s no remedy except to postpone the lowest-priority work until later. Consider chopping your project into a series of monthly work parties, with a plan and goals for each session. You should also plan for volunteer time off. Just like we take vacations from our paid work, volunteers should be free to take some time off from their volunteer projects. Time off from volunteer work should be part of your group’s work plan, and will help keep everyone fresh in the long haul.
6. Celebrate successes. Celebrating successes is a major component of keeping your volunteers fresh and excited. Without setting aside the time to celebrate accomplishments, the tasks ahead can seem endless. Quite often, those of us who are most deeply engaged in planning community enhancement projects are the worst culprits when it comes to taking the time to celebrate. We tend to move immediately to the next project on our list of what else we’d like to see done to improve our communities. While there’s always more to do, celebrating reminds everyone that we’re making progress, that we have some victories under our belts, and keeps everyone’s energy high going into whatever comes next.
Keep at it!
Building up your community’s leadership base is an ongoing effort. As mentioned earlier, the Same Six People Syndrome is very similar to the common cold. Like the common cold, the Same Six People Syndrome is seldom fatal, and will only linger or grow into worse afflictions if it's left untreated. Use these ideas to help find, cultivate, and inspire leadership in your community for years to come.