Thoughts on Support Groups

I have been involved in many volunteer-based support and community groups over the years. They were all good causes and all those involved were sincere in their hopes and wishes that the organizations would prosper and attain their goals. Some groups were successful and others were not.

All these groups from The United Way and Community Day Ottawa at the top of the food chain all the way down to street sale committees and transgender support groups had one thing in common: The bigger they got, the more rule-bound and hierarchical they became. And the less time, effort and money actually filtered down to the membership in the form of actual support and services.

Time and again, I’ve seen politics eclipse practical priorities and factionalization supercede fellowship. When groups start electing ‘executives’, striking committees and dealing with large amounts of money, their original aims and objectives are generally relegated to lower priorities and first priority (sometimes also second and third) is taken over by the perceived necessities of operating and preserving the integrity of the bureaucracy.

One reason that groups go astray as they grow is that, when members are asked to step up and assume the responsibility of ‘executive’ positions, the wrong kind of person steps up. Especially in mutual support and self help groups, many members tend to keep to the background and let others run the ‘business’ side of things. And the sort of people who step up to fill official positions are almost invariably one of two types, the first making good leaders and the second making bad ones.

The first type is the kind of person who, in all aspects of their life, steps up when no one else will because ‘it has to be done and no one else is willing to do it’. These people are genuinely helpful and caring individuals. They work for the good of the group and solicit direction from the membership. Their leadership style is open and transparent. They are almost always popular and successful in their official roles.

The second type is the kind of person who seeks the power and status that they believe an ‘executive’ position will bring them. They have their own agendas, gather their own little cliques of followers around them and spend a lot of time and energy protecting their own positions and looking over their shoulders for anyone who might challenge their authority. They do not seek membership input and, instead, send down pronouncements from upon high based on their own agendas and personal notions of what’s ‘right’ for the group. They consult the group only after decisions have been made to seek approval, not to receive input. Their leadership style is closed, secretive and, ultimately, unpopular.

On reflection, it seems sensible to limit the formal structure of small groups, keeping them as organizationally ‘flat’ as possibleespecially support and self-help groups where the emphases is or should be on personal growth through contact with others who share our specific issues and challenges.

One way or another, the needs and wishes of the members of a group should never take second place to the personal desires of a few power-loving people in official positions.

(Repost from a private blog.)

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  17. judyk Says:

    Hi and thank you for an excellent article.

    The author brings out some good points.

    I have been involved with support groups for the past 22 years and it seems the bigger they get the more unruly they become.

    I do believe there should be a management structure but not to the extent of taking away personnel freedoms and rights from members only to assert the managers’ own.

    Money is another issue that tends to ruin a group. When a group’s bank account becomes so big that squabbles break out as to what to do with the money, the group is destined to fail.

    This kind of thing would almost certainly take place under one of the bad leaders the author has talked about.

    I believe a leader should take direction from the members, not from their position on high, looking down.

    For any group to succeed, it must operate as a collective taking direction from the members, not dictating it. When this is done success is not only assured but mandated.

    Especially when dealing with a diverse group, I have noted that a bottom-up management style is much more effective than a top-down style.

    Bottom line: Treat others as you would like to be treated.


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