photoMy daughter’s preschool teacher approached me the other day about joining an effort underway to reinvigorate the school’s parent group. I politely declined.

Don’t get me wrong. I love my daughter’s teacher. She has brought much needed energy, intention and leadership to this room full of 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds. I enjoy doing things in and for the classroom and want to do more.

How I feel about the larger organization and this parent-group effort, however, is another story.

As I tried to explain my reluctance, I realized that the things holding me back – and the things that have turned me off to this effort – are classic communications problems.  And I wondered, what would it take to change my mind? If it were me, what would I do to earn back the interest and participation of my volunteers, employees or stakeholders?

Own the past – even if it’s not yours. Newcomers – whether the boss, volunteer coordinator or parents – want to start fresh, but every place has a history. As the new person, you don’t know what’s come before; you probably don’t care. But, chances are that employees, volunteers or constituents can’t forget it. So, accept it. Own it.

Avoid endless conversations about the past, for sure, But remember, you must understand the past in order to move forward. Understand previous efforts and past shortcomings. Understand why people are hesitant or disengaged.

Acknowledge what has happened, and talk about how your efforts will address those issues and take everyone in a different direction.

Understand the organization and audience, and adapt your approach to fit. Launching any new initiative requires that you know how the organization operates and who is in your audience.

The parent-group effort at my daughter’s school has something basic working against it. Parents have an affinity for their child’s classroom and loyalty to the classroom teachers, not the larger organization. This is partly driven by the school’s educational model, which can’t be changed – at least not quickly. Those behind the new group don’t seem to recognize this as an organizational issue or as a hurdle for the audience they’re trying to engage.

By first seeking to understand the organization, their audience and the barriers to engagement, they could develop more effective ways to reach their audience, get them involved and begin building support for the broader organization.

Squinty eyesMeet people face to face. Whether you’re starting a new program or reviving a languishing one, success depends on (re)building relationships and trust. This cannot be done by email and memos alone. Get out from behind the computer and meet the people you want to engage.

Planned, structured meetings are fine, but the onus is on the audience to show up. Mix it up by going to where your audience is – walk the floor at work and talk with employees. Volunteer in the classroom (or wherever your audience is).

People will appreciate the effort, and you will gain valuable insight into what is happening on the frontlines and what is on people’s minds.

Create opportunities for participation and collaboration. You see a need. Maybe you even have a vision and a plan to fill that need. So why aren’t people getting involved?

In any kind of effort, people want to understand where they fit in, what they can contribute and what they will gain. By explaining this, you can help gain their participation.

To earn deeper support and engagement, allow people to be a part of the planning process. While your ideas may be brilliant, coming to the table with a fully formed vision or plan doesn’t do much to invite participation or conversation. In fact, that approach shuts down conversation.

On the other hand, if you ask me (preferably face to face) about my concerns and ideas, I’d be happy to share. And if I hear from others, I can start to connect to their experiences. As a group, we can start to see overarching issues – maybe some you didn’t even know existed. And together we can devise some creative solutions.

Maybe the singular concern that I raised in the beginning eventually becomes a small part of the bigger final plan, but I gained a lot more from the collaborative process:

I was heard.

I now understand how I fit into the overall organization.

I saw that my concern was addressed, and I see how I can help address others’ concerns, too.

I contributed to the solution, and I have a stake in its success.

 And all of that makes me want to be involved and stay involved.