This article is from NACAC’s Starting and Nurturing Adoptive Parent Groups: A Guide for Leaders. Download the guide
A group is a living organism with a life of its own. Groups can become sick and die. They can heal and be renewed. They can even grow and mature to become something different than they started out to be. In order for a group to survive, the individuals within that group need to protect the life of the group. They need to listen to the rumblings within, pay attention to the outside forces, and take the necessary steps to keep the group healthy.
Not all groups have a long life. Some serve their purpose, and end quietly and gracefully. Some explode in discontent and scatter members in all directions. Some manage to continue to reinvent themselves, take in fresh ideas, attract new people, and remain energized. If a group has served its members and lived a good life, it may be okay to let it die. But what do members and leaders do when the group is floundering and no one wants it to die, but no one knows what to do?
|Groups that have a long, productive life:|
It doesn’t matter at what level a group operates—if the group achieves any kind of longevity, there will come a time when members will need to consciously plan for ways to rebuild the organization from within, rejuvenate membership and leadership, and refocus mission and energy. It takes a lot of energy to develop a group and to provide services to families. No matter how a group grows, it has to take care of its leadership and respond to its members’ needs to remain effective and provide quality services to families.
Even if your group has found tried and true solutions to problems or has repeated efforts and events that are popular with group members, always look for ways to be creative. Put a new twist in something you have done for years, and by all means try something different. When people tap into their creativity, their energy can spread and sometimes spark creativity in others. When group members tap deeper into their creative selves, obstacles to difficult problems can disappear. When that happens, your group drops its problem-focused mentality and becomes a solution-oriented group.
Over time, many groups struggle with attendance. You can try a variety of strategies to keep members interested and engaged.
One program that has been successful for many groups is a buddy system. Leaders pair more experienced adoptive parents with new or prospective parents. The inexperienced member has someone to turn to for support, encouragement, parenting advice, and tips for how to successfully access services. Parents soon begin to share strategies and often trade child care. Sometimes the experienced parent can help the inexperienced parent negotiate the system. For example, if the newer parent is having difficulty getting services for his children, the experienced parent may have more inside information about how to access medical help or get results from social services.
Think about how you will pair families—geographic closeness, similar life experiences, etc. In addition to retaining members, the buddy system allows parents to form a close bond with others who have been through similar circumstances.
Assigning a mentor to new members is similar to a buddy system, but mentors can be assigned on a need basis, upon request, or to everyone for the first year. Either way, new members will feel more like remaining an active part of a group when there is a system in place that helps them feel valued and connected with other members.
Phone trees are simple ways for members to remind each other about future meetings and events. Each member is assigned a person to call or a team of people is assigned a list of people to call. Receiving a phone call from another member of the group can serve not only as a reminder of the meeting, but also as a reminder that each person is a valued member of the group.
One creative group tried a different phoning system when membership waned. The leaders asked a respected member of the group to call each member to announce a meeting to dissolve the group because of low attendance. The next meeting there was 100 percent attendance of concerned and motivated members. This idea proved to be effective, but can’t be used often because members will likely consider it a false alarm.
Value Your Members’ Talents
While it can sometimes be difficult to find people to take on a long-term leadership position, it is often easy to recruit people to offer their specific expertise or talent. Maybe you have an excellent web designer, writer, accountant, trainer, speaker, lawyer, or chef. Learn about and assess the talents of each group member and think of ways to tap into those skills. This will help your members feel appreciated for their skills and give them a chance to help the group.
Remember to look for all of your members’ talents. Sometimes the last thing a chef wants to do is cook another meal after she leaves work, but maybe she is also a talented writer or speaker. Survey each member and keep updated records of their talents so that you benefit from the gifts each member has to offer.
Giving People Freedom to Change
Allow Others to Lead
As a group leader, you have to let yourself step down when its time to move on to something new or when your vision for the group conflicts with group’s desires. Group members who feel ready to take on leadership can feel discounted and ignored if longtime leaders won’t let anyone else lead.
Building a system within the group to rotate leadership responsibilities can help prevent burnout and keep energy flowing. Early on, you should develop a plan to share leadership or pass the torch. Take time with the transition and make sure members accept the new leader. Allow new leaders to express their vision and offer their ideas and talents to the group. Remain connected and helpful, but let the new leader set the tone and make decisions.
Allow People to Leave
Even though groups should try to retain members, they also need to know there are people who need to leave. Some people are ready to move on because their needs have been met, they need something different than what the group can provide, they are unwilling to work with others, or other reasons. Let them go. When any member leaves, however, you should document the reasons. The telephone survey on page 65 has some questions that specifically ask exiting members about why they are leaving. Make sure you ask these questions of everyone who leaves. If many members are leaving for the same reason, your group should decide if you have a problem that needs to be addressed.
Honor the Efforts of Leaders and Members
Take time to honor your current leaders and members and recognize their accomplishments. It is hard work to lead a group and take on the many tasks that members commit to. Every job is important because it helps the group achieve its mission. Take the time to celebrate the good things your group has done. Have an awards dinner with silly awards for all, give thank you cards and small gifts, and take the time to acknowledge what each person has done for the group and the community.
A newsletter can give your group a built-in way to honor members and keep them connected. Parent groups have published:
Figure out what it will take to get your whole group laughing. Laugh about the silly things that have happened in your group, even the failures or mistakes. These are the funny stories that bind you together and forge a greater sense of community. The main perks of belonging to a parent support group are the sense of community that is earned through your relationships and the good work you do for families.
Listen to Group Members
Groups exist for the group members and for the benefits they provide to the community, not for their leadership. If membership has dropped or people are unhappy, the leadership circle needs to take the time to find out why. Then they must respond to keep the group alive. Members will not stay if no one listens to them.
Early on, you provided a questionnaire to your members so that you could get information about members’ needs. You should continually gather information from your members, because people and needs change. If you haven’t been using the tracking and evaluating materials provided in chapter 4, consider doing this now. Record contacts with parents and track which events are successful, and which families are participating in meetings, activities, or projects.
If one faction of your membership seems uninvolved, maybe it is because you aren’t meeting their needs. A member survey (download sample PDF survey) can be used during a phone interview where you record members’ answers to specific questions. Or you can adapt it so that members can fill it out themselves. Phone interviews will probably be the most successful, because more people may respond and you can get clarification to answers if needed. Analyze the responses you get. For example, if parents are expressing a lack of time for the group (and most families today are overburdened), a scheduled event like a dinner can provide family time together and help you keep your members. Make sure any changes you propose reflect the data gathered from your members.
When you get feedback from members about things that could be improved or should change, how well does the leadership circle listen? How well do members listen to each other? How quickly does your group respond to feedback? If a group fails to respond to feedback from individuals, group members will feel angry, discounted, and invisible and may leave. Groups with a shorter feedback loop have leaders who hear the solutions to problems or suggested changes, discuss them, and then take immediate action.
Sometimes the action a group takes is to institute change, and sometimes it is to discuss modifications to suggestions, or explain why changes are not recommended at this time. Responsiveness of this kind shows the group that the leadership is responsive to their members’ needs and that what the members think, feel, and say is important even if leaders don’t follow all the suggestions.
Some issues that members raise will reflect one person’s opinion or the thoughts of a small group, and the group members or leader may decide not to change. Other times the idea may be eagerly embraced, even if one person suggests it, because the idea is good and the group unanimously wants it implemented. The leadership circle will have to decide which issues they want to bring to the attention of the whole group and which ones can be settled on an individual basis.
|Meet Group Members in Cyberspace|
If, over time, attendance drops and more and more members are unable to attend meetings due to scheduling difficulties or geographical barriers, consider offering support on the Internet. Your group could do something as simple as creating an e-mail group or listserv for all group members. You could communicate with each other anytime day or night and not have to leave home for a meeting. Your group could also create a web site to function as an online support group. Consider using online chat rooms for more structured discussion times, or message boards where parents can post questions or ideas whenever it is convenient for them and check back later to see who has responded. You may find that you still want to meet in person and you could do this from time to time.
A group in Virginia realized the value of using the Internet to provide the benefits of a parent group without having to work within the limitations of the schedules and locations of the group’s members. Offering help, hope, wholeness, and support, the group translated the goals of a traditional face-to-face parent group to cyberspace. The group’s motto, “support is support,” captures the idea that the goal is to provide parents with the support they need, regardless of the strategy you use to connect parents to that support. Demonstrating the potential of an online group to break down geographic barriers to parents connecting for mutual support, this once-local group now attracts participants from other counties, states, and even countries.
A group that lives in constant turmoil and conflict cannot survive. Some people may stay to fight, get battered around, or watch the fighting, but the group won’t be able to accomplish much and it certainly won’t be healthy. Healthy groups try to resolve conflict either by openly seeking its source and planning a strategy for resolving it, or by bringing in an outside expert to help the group work through the problem. If you ignore conflict, you risk losing good people or the entire group.
Provide Solution-Oriented Meetings
Check to see how your meetings are run. Are the same people dominating group discussions? Are the meetings bogged down by continued discussions of problems with no mention of solutions? Are solutions repeatedly offered to parents who don’t listen or try them? If you answered “yes,” you may have a problem with facilitation. Is anyone monitoring and guiding the meeting? If meetings are focused only on problems and seldom look at solutions or members ignore offered solutions, other members will feel trapped in an endless negative cycle.
If meetings are always depressing and members begin to feel there is little hope, attendance will drop. If this sounds like your group, maybe you can create or re-activate the buddy system or provide mentors to help support the families in crisis. If several people can share the duties of support outside of the meeting time, it can help all parties involved. Group members should want to support each other, but not at the expense of the life of the group.
When the group comes up with solutions for a problem, break that solution into small, measurable action steps. Assign tasks to volunteers and ask that they commit to completing those action steps in a timely manner. The focus will shift from talking about problems to solving them.
Revisit Your Mission Statement
Look at your group’s mission statement. Sometimes a group simply needs to follow its current mission more closely. When group members get back in touch with the passion behind their mission and remember how to break their goals into action steps that produce results, group energy can be revitalized.
Sometimes the mission no longer fits the group, so your direction or the mission needs to change. Whichever may be the case for you, your group should set up a meeting to re-examine the mission statement, maybe even develop a new one, and recapture the energy you once had.
Become a Nonprofit Organization
For some groups, a needed boost comes from seeking nonprofit status. If your group has the desire and the know-how to implement needed solutions, but lacks the money to expand your services and programs, read <Becoming a Nonprofit LINK>, get started, and move forward toward your goals.
Retreat with Your Group
The energy in a group changes just like it does in people. Sometimes group members need time to get away, relax, and recharge at a retreat away from other pressures. This time together can help build relationships among members; help people recommit to the group; and give the group time to plan, strategize, and determine the direction it wants to take. If your group decides to take a retreat, make sure you give your members time to socialize so that the retreat is relaxing. When people are enjoying themselves, they will be more cooperative and better able to focus on the tasks you give them.
Plan the content of your retreat carefully, looking at the main issues, decisions, or work the group needs to do. Prior to the retreat, collect information from your members regarding what people most want addressed and then have the leadership circle or a subcommittee plan retreat activities.
Some groups have a yearly retreat to carefully plan what they want to accomplish in the coming year. At the retreat they assign duties and responsibilities so that group members know well in advance when they have to complete a task and can plan how they will accomplish their volunteer efforts around a busy family schedule.
Reassess your Community Needs
Make sure your group is offering services or meeting a real need in your community. If you are stuck doing things the same old way and have lost touch with what your surrounding community needs, attendance and enthusiasm for what you have to offer will decrease. You may want to survey community members to find out what their current needs are. When your group becomes enlightened about a real need, passion and commitment can return to the group and give it strength, energy, and a new focus.
|Taking Stock and Making Changes|
A group in Utah conducted a survey of all its members and collected information about race and ethnic background, family makeup (number of birth and adopted children), type of adoption, and services used in the past. After reviewing the results from more than 300 families, leaders made changes in the group’s services to better reflect the changes in their group’s needs.
For example, leaders discovered that fewer of the group’s families had adopted from foster care than they had thought. As a result, they launched several efforts to promote adoption from foster care—a key component of their mission. In addition, to help its many transracial families, the group partnered with the local African American community to enhance two of the group’s four main activities.
Another group found a quick way to get changing information from group members. They now have a few simple questions written on their membership renewal form.
Look for New Funding Sources
Sometimes groups become passive because they have good ideas, but no money to do the work they want to do. If your group doesn’t want to give up, you simply have to work to find money for your projects. If you are having trouble with money issues, organize a meeting to specifically outline the roadblocks to securing funding. If the members of your leadership circle don’t have fundraising skills, you need to recruit someone who is good at writing grant proposals, asking for donations, or planning funding strategies. Although new money coming into an organization can’t solve fundamental problems, it does wonders for increasing motivation and enthusiasm.
Talk to Successful Groups
All groups experience times when they need rejuvenation and may want to learn what other groups do to get rejuvenated. Talk to other leaders to gather ideas for your group. Look at groups that are like yours and others that are different. Be open to new ways your group can approach the work it wants to do.