Why is it so hard to do good?

For the first time today, I did a little work at my new community garden, helping my fellow members get the veggie patch ready for spring. As we wrapped things up, several of the more established members started discussing the last board meeting, during which the ousted plant archivist read an impassioned letter, and the whole event errupted. Apparently at one point the president’s neck turned red in anger as someone called for him to step down, to which he cried, “You step up!”

But there I was, planting parsnips among the daffodils, a spring shower lingering on the collard leaves, the willow tree a shifting curtain of mint-green haze. Where does it all go wrong? The thing is, I sympathize greatly with the president and whoever he was yelling at. It all sounds ridiculous from the outside, but I’ve been there – I’ve so been there. In fact, less than an hour before walking down to the garden I was bubbling with anger three years or more in the making, rekindled by an email from an organization I’m not even involved with anymore.

My new community garden.

Why is it so hard to do good together? Community gardens, food co-ops, animal rescues, even churches – every volunteer-based organization I have ever encountered faces the same problem. It is easy enough to be a worker bee or a donor, but the more you give (of yourself or your paycheck) the more invested you become, and that’s where things so often get sticky. I’ve thought a lot about this over the last year or two, and while I don’t know how to fix it, I have a few ideas about where the problems start:

1) Demographics
First and foremost, these things happen because the people involved are passionate. They really care about the project they are working on, and they have put time into forming clear opinions. But there are lots of people in the world who care and form opinions about issues without becoming personally involved, which leads me to believe that those who do take action (and especially those who take on leadership roles) probably share a common trait: self worth. Instead of stopping at “someone should do something,” we have a little voice that says, “I should do something because I can.” It’s beautiful. It also sleeps in the same bed with ego, self-importence and a lot of other traits.

I also believe that people who take real action on an issue are naturally inclined to be outsiders, independent thinkers, people who enjoy bucking the norm. We don’t always play well with others. Animal rescuers and anyone else who fights for the rights of a victimized group can become especially isolated. Look at a litter of kittens left to die in a plastic sack on the side of the road and tell me you don’t hate people a little bit.

2) The wrong person for the job
If no one is getting paid there usually isn’t much (or any) competition for positions, so organizations assign jobs to the person who shows up, not the person who is best. So people who aren’t good with people wind up being managers; introverts handle publicity. It isn’t that the volunteers are bad, its just that they’re doing the wrong jobs. To make matters worse, the rest of the organization expects a lot from these poor souls who are under-qualified, unpaid, and often untrained. Because there’s no money changing hands (and no qualified HR person to guide the process) hiring, firing and worker evaluations are all loosey-goosey. Everything, in fact, is not as professional as it could or should be.

3) Power vs. responsibility
The subtitle of this subtitle is, “The leaders are dictators who don’t listen to members or share information” vs. “No one comes to meetings or volunteers to do the heavy lifting, so the leaders do what they must to keep things running for everyone’s benefit.” The truth usually lies in the middle with one version of reality giving birth to the other in a self-fufilling leadership nightmare fueled by everything I mentioned in points one and two.


The solution? Plant parsnips; stay away from board meetings. No, I don’t mean that. I’m probably not capable of that. Seven months away from Oklahoma, and I’m itching for action, ready to be on the inside again with the folks who are making things happen. But I really want it to be different somehow.

All I can say is this:  When you give yourself to something, do everything in your power to give your best self. Volunteer to do only what you are best at. Remind yourself over and over that your fellow members mean well. Nothing is personal, even when, sometimes, it kind of is.

And at the end of the day, get your fingers back in the dirt. Make sure that part of your time is still spent doing what made you love this work in the first place: petting puppies, pulling weeds, delivering eggs. If it isn’t fun anymore, stop.



3 thoughts on “Why is it so hard to do good?

  1. I like your framework for understanding the problem.

    It was a minor project, but for a time I ran a volunteer group that built community gardens in Norman, and I honestly spent most of my time negating these issues.

    The first required alot of hand-holding and ego-reassuring, until people trusted me (and then maintenance, haha).

    The second required conscientious thought about who would do best where, and working with those people to get them excited about being in that role.

    The third required understanding the balanced give and take of a leader’s decision making vs. the groups decision making, and the ever important picking of battles.

    I also think that while we were briefly working together, I saw that you had a knack for that too. The fact that you’ve even picked this apart at all shows that you are better than most.

    So pat yourself on the back, lol :)

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