Saturday, September 01, 2007

Organizing Students: Commitments

This is the second in a series of posts providing insight into the organization of student groups. It is offered by me, an outgoing director of the graduate student-led Forum on Science Ethics and Policy at the University of Washington. The last entry dealt with membership and the importance of remembering members' names.

One of the enduring challenges for student groups of any type or size is achieving the right balance between members' contribution to the group and commitment to their own studies. After all, students go to college for an education; the goal of which is often a degree. It is important for a student group to recognize its role as a supportive element to the college experience, but not the central one. It is easy for organization leaders (due their own investments of time and energy) to think of the group more highly than most of its members. Because of this, extreme care must be taken not to force members into tasks they resent. If the organization is ordered such that members agree with the mission, they will be willing to volunteer for tasks that are supportive. Often these supportive tasks are not time-intensive and enable members to contribute to the group without a large commitment. Once a part of the organization, many folks decide to take on larger responsibilities as leaders.

For a relatively small student group (25 active members), FOSEP plans a large number of events each year. There is usually one large public event (involving an audience > 250), 3-5 medium sized seminars (~125 attend) and many small events that range from journal clubs to happy hours. You can imagine that the time commitment to plan an event at the Pacific Science Center with media tie-ins and peripheral campus events differs significantly from announcing a monthly happy hour. But neither is less important than the other. For us, the happy hour is the main place where we socialize with each other and meet potential members. Therefore, the 'happy hour officer' is a crucial job, but one that can be done by a single individual. Members identify with our mission, and that serves as the common ground for all of our activities (outwardly and behind the scenes).

Larger events carry more stress and more tasks. FOSEP handles this by dividing leadership responsibility. We are a big advocate for co-positions: co-chairs, co-directors, etc. When there is a busy week of experiments or if one person is away at a conference, it is useful to have another leader who can cover if tasks need to be done. Such a leadership structure does a number of good things:
  • It encourages consensus by removing a final decision from one person
  • It enables members to cycle in and out of leadership positions as others graduate
  • One leader can cover for another if needed
  • Co-leaders have room to discover elements of the organization that they prefer or want to improve.
The main potential problem here is if co-leaders do not communicate well. We have observed that individuals united in a vision or that agree on a mission can overcome obstacles of personality.

Finally, there must be a transparency of commitment. This is difficult to establish early on, since it is often unknown just how much work running the organization will be. As the structure becomes more defined, members should know about both the tasks and the time commitments undertaken by current leaders. Incomplete disclosure of 'just how much time I thought I was devoting to this' can result in hard feelings down the road. We prefer that new leaders realize in advance that they may spend 5 hours one week, 1 hour the next and 10-15 on the week leading up to an event. Then, after the audience leaves and the positive responses come back, they can feel the reward of having planned a meaningful seminar. In a way, that some events have large time commitments demands that the presentations are good!

For members of a student-led organization, there are always more important priorities than the group or club. Occasionally, a member puts the organization near the top of her list. These usually end up being the group's directors; in FOSEP's case these folks sometimes choose careers more related to their FOSEP roles than what they did in the laboratory. But this cannot be expected of everyone. Any member's commitment should be welcomed, none should be scorned, and leaders should look out for each others' priorities. In the end this will make for a healthier, more sustainable organization that people feel good about contributing to.

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