If you crack open the trusty old dictionary (Remember that big, thick book that no one looks at anymore?), you’ll see the following for the definition of volunteerism: “the practice of providing time and skills for the benefit of other people and causes rather than for financial benefit."
While not an issue in all municipalities, it’s clear we have a volunteerism problem in local government. Most of the townships I know find it very difficult to find people willing to fill positions on the zoning hearing board, planning commission, various authorities, and boards.
Unfortunately, that has become the norm for our society; we are all swamped and trust that someone else will fulfill these duties and do an excellent job for us. The average resident has a regular job, a spouse and children, along with all the responsibilities that go along with that. So how do they make time to serve in local government? It is far easier to criticize those who lend their time to such efforts. Armchair quarterbacks always think they can coach the game better than those who are playing it. Unfortunately, it often takes someone being adversely impacted by actions of their local government for them to jump into the game and volunteer for a municipal position.
The situation got so bad in our township that we had to combine a five-member sewer authority and a five-member water authority in order to maintain a quorum at a meeting. The newly formed sewer/water authority still has problems – including a lack of future volunteers in the local leadership pipeline. For my township and many others across our commonwealth, it is not uncommon to have some local leaders who have served their community diligently for decades. It is just the type of person they are, and thank goodness we still have people like that. But what happens when they finally decide to hang it up? In today’s age, how do you recruit the next generation of volunteer leaders?
Transparency and good media coverage of various degrees keep you in the mind of citizens. Word of mouth via social media will undoubtedly generate conversations, but I find that much of that is polluted with misinformation and personal opinions that lack good background information. I have seen one technique used time and time again in my community. Basically, if you see a local resident who shows interest in a specific issue in your municipality, take advantage of it and broach the topic of having them be part of the solution by volunteering on a board. They’re already interested and engaged. Strike while the iron is hot.
I will lay out the scenario for you. A hot issue comes before the board. As most of you know, the room is rarely packed unless a controversial topic is being deliberated. Amongst that concerned crowd are citizens that may suddenly feel the need to volunteer for your municipality as they have deemed that things are not just as they think they should be. That person stands up and does a fair job of pontificating on the subject. Hmmmm, perhaps we have found someone who might be willing to take a seat on the planning commission. During these moments of what I like to call "governmental passion," people are more likely to have the calling for volunteerism. Please take advantage of it. Have those people submit a resume of sorts and maintain a list of potential candidates. As you all know, things can change quickly and you may need to fill a board vacancy in a hurry.
I recall when a citizen in one municipality started disparaging the zoning officer’s actions concerning an issue he had with his future septic location. While he presented himself well, he was unable to have his issue resolved to his satisfaction. The encounter opened the door to volunteerism, and that citizen soon found himself on the sewer authority board. From there, he went on to a four-year stint on the Council and another term on the county's airport authority, where he later became chairman.
The trick is to channel their enthusiasm and give them an avenue to express it. Hey, it works; give it a try.
So at that next tumultuous township meeting, look over the crowd and find a good candidate to volunteer. Introduce yourself and say, "fire this thing up; you're volunteering on the Zoning Hearing Board."
About the Author
David L. Anthony is a member of the Keystone Municipal Solutions team of experts. He is a veteran of municipal government, having served more than 32 years in various positions of public service. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. To learn more about David and the Keystone Municipal Solutions team, click here.