Volunteering: Improving volunteering rates across European NGBs (Part Two)

Volunteers at the European Games 2019 I Photo Credit: Ajantha Abey Quidditch Photography

By Abby Whiteley

Editor’s Note: Abby Whiteley is Vice-President of QuidditchUK and Captain of Oxford Mammoths 

 

  1. Next Steps
    1. 1. Changing Cultures
  2. Transparency and Frustration 
    2.1. Emotional Investment 
    2.2. Improved Understanding 
  3. What can NGBs actually do?
    3.1. Media Solutions
    3.2. Non-media Solutions
  4. Conclusion and further reading
  5. Bibliography 

 

This is Part Two of a piece on volunteering in National Governing Bodies (NGBs) for European quidditch. It is highly recommended that you start with Part One to give you context on the conversation, and to read the data from the survey sent to European NGBs. In this second half, I will discuss solutions to free-riding, ways of improving relationships between organisations and their users, and some suggestions to improve volunteering across European NGBs.

 

1.1. Changing cultures

In the first half, I discussed the free-rider problem and how it is related to group size. In my opinion, we can learn how to address the volunteering crisis in European NGBs not only from literature about the free-rider problem, but also from the demolishment programme rolled out by Detroit City Council. Let’s start by looking at free-riding once more.

In this section, I am going to discuss the player base and the NGB here as two independent and, occasionally, oppositional units. Although they do often overlap – all but one of QuidditchUK’s current EMT are active players – they are two distinct groups with their own needs and priorities. There is a tension between the needs of an NGB (to run the sport without burning out its volunteers) and the needs of players (to play the sport with ample playing opportunities and good resources), as meeting players’ diverse needs puts pressure on NGB workload. However, I believe this can be a harmonious relationship, where each party respects and appreciates the other, and that the improvement of this relationship will increase volunteering from the player base.

Lipford (1995) gives the following explanation of how people overcome the free-rider problem and contribute anyway:

“Explanations of why people voluntarily contribute to the provision of public goods include honesty, social norms, reciprocity obligations, joint production (of public and private goods), and recognition of the mutual disadvantages that result from free-riding” (emphasis mine)

(Lipford, 1995: 292).

There is a lot of literature explaining how managers and group leaders and businesses can minimise the free-rider problem, and I’m sure it keeps Spotify’s accounts team up at night. I particularly like this quote because it emphasises how people respond to a sense of social responsibility. People want to contribute to groups where they know that free-riding will be bad for everyone, especially where cultural norms of contributing are embedded. As discussed in the first half, it is normalised in some European NGBs that a great deal is done by very few, and that is a cultural issue. But there are also emotional concerns; some players do not feel well-served by their NGB, and most people will not volunteer for an organisation they do not like. There is a vicious cycle of insufficient volunteering which results in worse services for players, followed by players being frustrated and losing faith in the NGB, thereby discouraging further volunteering and making the situation worse.

I believe this can be broken by changing cultural norms, as Lipford (1995) emphasised, and this can be achieved through effective communication. Isaac and Walker (1988) provided experimental evidence showing that “Communication… improve[s] group optimality significantly”, and this included reducing free-riding. Active communication from the people working towards the public good encouraged others to participate, even without additional incentives. Let’s have a look at what culture change and effective communication can look like.

 

  1. Transparency and frustration

I am going to diverge from quidditch briefly, but it will become clear how the issues discussed here link back. Many ideas in this section were taken wholesale from Episode 369 of the 99% Invisible podcast. I recommend listening to the whole episode, but the given link has a summary. I am going to refer to a discussion about the Harvard canteen, which is not in the summary and starts at 14:30 in the recording. 

This episode explains beautifully how people become frustrated with everything from city councils to travel site loading screens when it is not made clear to them how long they need to wait, or why. People feel powerless and quickly become frustrated when they don’t know why things aren’t happening, or not happening fast enough. This may be a familiar sentiment from issues in your quidditch community. When you are simply waiting and you don’t know how long you’ll be waiting for, like at a bus stop with no timetable information, this can feel interminable and you can quickly get upset. However, when you are told that you will need to wait 25 minutes, you may not be happy about it but you will not experience the buildup of frustration and resentment of waiting for a mysterious amount of time. This is why many computer programmes and websites give you loading bars rather than endlessly spinning icons (it is unclear why Apple persists with the rainbow ball), because loading bars give you an expectation of when things will happen.

Now, it is not necessarily practical for quidditch organisations to give loading bars or clear timelines on things like tournament organisation, because these are complex processes. However, there have been some cases showing that people are happier to wait when they know why they need to wait, and this improves their satisfaction with the service. This is a case of transparency. For example, Ryan Buell, an associate professor at Harvard Business School, set up cameras in Harvard canteen so people could see the cooks in the kitchen. Diners rated the service as 19% faster, and they even rated the food as 22% tastier. This change was attributed to appreciation of the work that went into it. The diners understood that there was work involved in the cooking delay, not a mysterious opaque force deliberately setting out to inconvenience them, and they appreciated that this took time and effort. This is speculation, but I also imagine it is harder to criticise people you can actually see rush around a kitchen than to criticise “the cooks” in general when you can’t see them.

There is a lot of waiting in quidditch. Waiting for fee announcements, tournament locations, national team lists, referee payments. Then, when these things come, they come like a bolt out of the blue, with no context for players of understanding why fees are so high, why the tournament is in an inconvenient place, why so-and-so didn’t make the national team, and so on. Although most non-volunteering players would, if asked, say they appreciate that running an NGB is probably a lot of work – just like most people would admit serving hundreds of diners in a couple of hours is probably quite hard – there is a lack of genuine understanding of what it takes to make an organisation work. We have seen that when people wait around and don’t really know what work is going on behind the scenes, they get angry with the service provider, however legitimate the delay might be. But – and this is cause for optimism – we have also seen that people are more appreciative and understanding when they can see the work happening.

I will admit that the jump from waiting for lunch to waiting for a tournament announcement is a little strained, especially because most players’ relationship with their NGB isn’t simply characterised by suspenseful waiting. However, consider the case of Detroit City Council, whose work more closely represents what is done by quidditch NGBs: continuous, fiddly projects which can go on for months. Detroit City Council needed to demolish lots of houses abandoned after the 2008 financial crash, and they were not transparent with residents about when this was happening or how much work was going into it. Because residents didn’t understand what was going on behind the scenes or how complicated it can actually be to contract people to demolish houses, they simply got angry with the council. However, when an online map was launched showing people when houses would be demolished and what would happen to the land afterwards, relationships between the council and the residents improved hugely, even when the demolition schedule had not changed at all. The transparency improved relationships because people didn’t feel that they were being deprived of information intentionally, and they had a greater appreciation for the complexity of the work. This is where we can apply transparency to quidditch volunteering.

 

2.1. Emotional investment

Transparency will improve NGB-player relationships on two levels: the emotional and the intellectual. We have just discussed the emotional side of transparency: it is a natural response for people to get frustrated when they don’t know what is happening, and we often see this with quidditch. Think about how much better it is to get an email saying something definitely isn’t going to happen, than it is to sit and stew. Even if the answer isn’t what you wanted, at least you know and you can move on. More transparency would reduce the frustration response from players, reassure them about the work that NGBs are doing – and give them realistic expectations of what the NGB can do. NGB volunteers have limited time and energy. They are people dealing with many projects as well as jobs, personal lives, and likely quidditch teams of their own, and many players are understanding of this when the extent of that work is made clear.

We also saw with the canteen example that it is easier for people to get angry at the concept of an organisation than it is to get angry with the individuals running it. I encountered this when I was a senior member of a club committee a few years ago. A player brought a valid critique to me, expressing frustration that an issue hadn’t been addressed with sufficient care and attention. I felt hurt and defensive because I had personally done some work in that area – although I knew it could have been better – but I was so exhausted and strung-out with trying to juggle everything else in the club, along with a chaotic personal and professional life, that I felt even more unmeetable expectations were being placed on my shoulders. When I told them this, the player said that they had intended to critique the club, not me personally – even though I was one of just four or five people on the committee, and the issue certainly came under my remit.

I think this conversation is a good example of how relationships between players and NGBs often operate. It is very easy to forget, when criticising an NGB or a club, that you are not really giving feedback to a faceless organisation. NGBs and clubs aren’t multinational corporations with dozens of people underpinning every decision. They are tiny groups of people, often so small that a “general” criticism could be placed at the door of the single person who handles the relevant area. However, NGB members who feel at their wit’s end with the work people expect of them often forget that they haven’t told their players what they are doing, or they do not realise that players feel their needs aren’t being met. This makes players feel justifiably lost and frustrated because they feel certain things just aren’t being addressed. 

This breakdown in communication erodes trust and sympathy on both sides, and ultimately makes NGBs into unsympathetic organisations which players do not want to volunteer for, even if the people running it are known to the community. This can be changed by communicating clearly what NGBs are doing and how this is going to help the player base, which will reduce frustration and thereby increase the sense of cultural belonging to the NGB. This increased social attachment would increase voluntary contribution as Lipford (1995) and Fischbacher and Gachter (2010) described. Players need to have a sense of togetherness with the whole quidditch system, feeling ownership and affective attachment to the sport as a whole including the NGB, and not stopping at the club level.

 

2.2. Improved understanding

The other benefit of improved transparency is a more informed player base, who make for better critics. It is crucial that the player base is engaged and critical of the NGB, because this makes the NGB better and keeps them targeted towards players’ needs. However, it is not useful to get feedback from players who all want more from the NGB without any sense of the resources the NGB is actually working with. It is not possible to put on more events at better venues with first aid and changing rooms and and 3G pitches and higher ref payments, and to run coaching workshops and support the national team(s) and pay snitches and provide equipment and financially support new teams, all while lowering player fees. Unrealistic expectations hurt both sides of the NGB-player relationship.

Critique from the player base is essential for the sport to operate, but that critique needs to be targeted and useful. Seeing what NGBs are actually working with, and understanding the work and thought that goes into that, is crucial for a more informed and co-operative partnership between the NGB and the playerbase. Players have a duty to educate themselves if they want to give critique, and NGBs have a duty to make that information readily available and respond to criticism, even if that response is “that isn’t going to work for X reason”. This even applies in cases where the NGB is not delivering everything the players would like; most NGBs do not serve all of their teams’ needs equally, and they must strive to do so, but they are working with limited resources. Players may not be happy if an NGB needs to say “we’re sorry, but that project isn’t being launched this season”, but at least they know the NGB has heard their concerns. This reduces the “wait time” of players expressing their frustration and waiting for a response – either because the information is already available or because they know they will get it.

 

  1. What can NGBs actually do?

I know that transparency is not the most revolutionary change to have ever been suggested, although I think it is something quite low down on NGBs’ priorities (for understandable reasons). However, the difference here is that I am not only suggesting transparency so NGBs can be held accountable, but also so that they can reconnect with their player bases in a positive way, making themselves an appealing partner for volunteers. If NGBs can reconnect with their player bases through media and personal relationships, communicating just how much work it takes to run organisation and how people can help, then there is hope. Many European NGBs, from Turkey to Germany, are too large to avoid the free-rider problem entirely. There are some people who will never volunteer because quidditch is just a weekend hobby, because they have other commitments, because they don’t have the skills or simply because they don’t want to, and that is absolutely fine. We don’t need every single person in the country volunteering, because that would be bedlam. Changing the dialogue, however, can get NGBs a few volunteers closer to the projects they want to deliver. This would also address one of the main concerns in recruitment; people may be unwilling to step up because they are worried about the workload, but getting more volunteers will distribute workloads more evenly and reduce this concern, creating a virtuous cycle.

These recommendations have been made because they should not take up too much additional volunteer time and effort, but should make NGBs more transparent. They are mostly media-based, as this is an issue of communication.

 

3.1. Media solutions

  • Publicly celebrate your volunteers

Show your volunteers and other people in the community just how much you appreciate their work, and how volunteers make the sport the best it can be. Public thank yous or volunteer awards let people feel appreciated for their work, and gives the community a chance to feel pride about what has been achieved in the season. 

  • Publicise interactions with players

When players send emails asking for information, it may be useful to post fortnightly or monthly posts giving the information which people have asked for. This could simply be a website or social media post, saying that you’ve been talking to your player base, and here are some of the questions and answers given. Think of “You asked, we answered!” and FAQ pages – almost no additional work because the questions have been answered already!

  • Invite players to talk

Players respond to General Forums and formal opportunities for communication. QuidditchUK have launched a player attitudes survey asking for feedback on NGB performance and at time of writing it has had over 160 responses. Publicising open question forms can also give NGBs a chance to address common questions and make it clear what they need from players to operate better. This is more work for the NGB, but only needs to happen a couple of times a year.

 

3.2. Non-media solutions

Some NGBs mentioned media as an area which they struggle to support due to lack of volunteering, so I wanted to provide some ideas which are not dependent on increased media presence.

  • Talk to players

We are really lucky that so many of our administrators are also current players. This means that NGB volunteers are always going to tournaments and events where they’re talking to their players all the time. Be open and friendly at tournaments and remind people that you’re a member of the community who really wants the best for it. Ask openly which issues your players want to see addressed, and give honest responses about whether this is feasible or not.

  • Be honest

If you do not have enough volunteers to run a tournament, tell your players. No one wants to see a tournament cancelled, and being upfront about the situation will often make people realise where they can help. We all want to play quidditch, and many people genuinely don’t realise how stretched their NGB is. Also share your hopes and dreams for the future, and the fantastic things you could do if you had more people. People might not get excited about abstract role descriptions, but inviting people onto specific projects can be much more appealing.

  • Point players to resources which are already available

For example, QuidditchUK publishes its EMT minutes and annual budgets on its website, but we could do more to make players aware of these resources; we often get queries about things which have been discussed at EMT meetings. If tournament schedules have been released, tell people where to find them instead of answering scheduling questions yourself. This is low-effort, saves your volunteers time, and reassures players that there is information available.

 

  1. Conclusion

I do not expect that these proposals will completely fix the volunteering problem in European NGBs. There are many reasons why volunteering is low in certain areas of the sport, and I haven’t even touched on club recruitment, refereeing or snitching. However, I hope that these suggestions will improve relationships between NGBs and their player bases, helping NGBs to highlight their good work and helping players become more effective and engaged critics.

Future areas for analysis could include discussion with players about what would motivate them to volunteer, and different approaches NGBs can take to encourage volunteering. Any further discussion on issues and solutions in volunteering, both in NGBs and elsewhere, would be very welcome!

Finally, many thanks to the NGB representatives who gave up their time to explain their situation.

 

Further reading

The Labor Illusion: How Operational Transparency Increases Perceived Value

 

Bibliography

99% Invisible, 2019. Wait Wait… Tell Me! [online] Available at: <https://99percentinvisible.org/episode/wait-wait-tell-me/> [Accessed 13.09.2019[

Isaac, R.M., and Walker, J.M., 1988. Communication and Free-Riding Behavior: The Voluntary Contribution Mechanism. Economic Inquiry, 26(4): 585-608.

Lipford, J.W., 1995. Group Size and the Free-Rider Hypothesis: New Evidence from Churches. Public Choice, 83(3/4): 291-303.

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