School of Public & Environmental Affairs Podcast Series
In today's raw political atmosphere of shrill dissent and sharp divides, for many experts civic organizations are more important than ever -- for bringing people of diverse backgrounds and opinions together to work toward a common cause.
And you might think the most successful organizations are those with the most money and lots of members. But according to SPEA researcher Matthew Baggetta, "There are some groups that have lots of resources and a great context and really aren't producing anything."
To find out what really does make volunteer associations tick, Baggetta and colleagues at Harvard studied the Sierra Club, an environmental group with more than one million members. They came up with three categories to define effectiveness: public recognition and influence, member engagement, and perhaps most importantly, leadership.
"It's really important for an organization like the Sierra Club to develop leadership abilities and skills and produce new leaders over time," Baggetta says, "because if not, within a couple of years the organization is clearly just going to die out."
After interviewing thousands of Sierra Club members and local leaders, Baggetta and his colleagues parsed the data and saw something ... unexpected. Having plenty of money and members didn't hurt. But it was really category number three -- leadership -- that made all the difference.
"In the way that scholars have looked at this before, it's sort of a surprise that resources and location didn't make as much of a difference but the actual functioning of leaderships teams," Baggetta says. "The extent to which they operated in an interdependent fashion, which can be very difficult for volunteer organizations where you can't hire or fire people really made a big difference."
So if, for example, a Sierra Club branch wanted to organize a group hike in the mountains, Baggetta says the outing is less likely to succeed if one person attempts to make it happen. Rather, civic groups tend to work best when responsibilities are shared, with one person coordinating publicity, another finding someone to lead the hike, yet another volunteer taking care of legal release forms. That sort of cooperation, Baggetta says, "bodes well for the organization as a whole."
Until recently, Baggetta says, many volunteer organizations haven't recognized the importance of fostering successful leadership. But at least for the Sierra Club, Baggetta's study is making a difference. "Since we did the research, they took a look at those outcomes and they've started really trying to identify these things in a more directed way to bring people together. You can manipulate this, you can self consciously try to train leaders how to lead and how to operate as a real team. And they are trying to do that now."
Learn more about Matthew Baggetta's Sierra Club study.