A Necessary Equal

Editor’s Note: This column, “LBWA” (Leadership By Wandering Around), is based on the premise that, in order to find out what’s going on in the field, a parks and rec leader has to leave his or her desk and “wander around” the area of operations, talk to people, ask questions, and kick around ideas with the individuals in the thick of delivering services to the public. So the author will bring up issues and ask the leaders among the readership to share their knowledge and experiences.

I’m not sure about other recreation departments, but here in Peachtree City, Ga., if it weren’t for volunteers, we wouldn’t have half the wide range of parks and recreation activities we offer, especially in youth sports.

However, the volunteer workforce is a two-edged sword–it has its advantages, but it also has its drawbacks.

On the one hand, if we had to hire the number of people it takes to operate the 12 different youth sports we now support, taxes would quadruple, or we just wouldn’t have them. Here, the city provides the facilities and operating costs, while the volunteer association provides the operational program.

On the other hand, a volunteer workforce has high turnover, different approaches to doing things, high expectations and little patience with reality and, well, they can walk off the job or just not show up if things don’t go their way.

Giving Back

I have somewhat of a love/tolerate/sometimes-not-like-at-all relationship with volunteers. Most of them fall into the first category, a small percentage in the second and a thankfully diminutive number in the last.

Most volunteers–for youth sports anyway–are parents or other family members of a youth in a program. They generally volunteer while their child is playing, then move on. Occasionally, one or two exceptionally dedicated volunteers will stay beyond that.

Volunteers in other community endeavors offer their services out of a sense of service. Others do it after retirement in order to give back to a community that supported them. Occasionally, someone will volunteer to get the name out there as he or she is preparing to run for elected office.

People volunteer for different reasons, and I make it a point not to judge why. If they volunteer and get the job done, I’m a happy camper.

A Vicious Cycle

Most of the time our volunteer force moves along like a well-oiled machine, but sometimes it goes off track. One particular sport has three different groups using the same fields. Each group has a different philosophical approach to the sport: one is in it for pure recreation, another is in it for competition, and the third is in the middle of the other two. Added to that mix is pressure from local businesses to encourage more outside tournaments that draw people to town.

So there is all this competition for the same field space, generally at the same time of year and during the same hours of the day, but for widely divergent reasons.

Two of these groups are constantly at each other’s throat. We have supported the recreation folks as the primary user of the fields for decades; the competitive program came into existence less than 10 years ago, hasn’t put a fraction of the time, sweat and money into the fields as the recreational program has done, but still feels entitled to full use as “citizens of this city.”

The Breaking Point

Recently, another issue arose, about the use of the concession buildings at the fields. We tried to make the two sides work it out, but it kept lingering and, finally, I confronted the head of the competitive group, who accused me of “taking sides” with the recreational group. Long story short, the phone conversation ended with his telling me he would just have to get me fired, and my telling him to do what he needed to do.

I hate when that happens. The odd thing was, though, that once I became the common enemy, the two sides talked, and are in the process of working something out. So I guess the lesson here is sometimes you have to act like a parent and become the “bad guy” to get the kids to cooperate.

The biggest challenge with volunteer groups is that each feels that its particular piece of the pie is the most important, and doesn’t recognize that a limited paid staff with finite resources is trying to please the needs of many divergent groups.

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