Have you ever taken a walk or a bike ride with no real target, no agenda, no destination? These can be fun every now and then, but if there is someone else with you chances are you will disagree on where to go, how long to be gone and when to turn around toward home. And the bigger the group (and maybe the younger they are), the more questions are asked like, “when will we be there?” If you have no destination in mind, how can you even answer that question?
I don’t know why, but most people find volunteer or nonprofit work an acceptable place to not have an end goal in mind. The excuses are myriad, but might sound like this, “there is so much work to do, we will never be done anyway” or “we don’t want to set a goal because if we don’t achieve it that will make the people we are serving feel bad, like they didn’t matter to us.” There are others, but those are two I’ve heard more than a few times. How can we get away with this attitude of a wanderer when it comes to service when we would never tolerate that from a company like Apple or Wal-Mart – and we certainly wouldn’t tolerate it even for our own family vacation (imagine just starting out to drive to Florida with no idea where Florida even is)? We would never even think of doing that, hopefully.
We get away with it in the community service realm because not setting concrete goals and holding ourselves accountable to them has become acceptable in our society. Not everyone neglects goals (and there are some awesome people doing great work and KEEPING their promises to communities), but it is prevalent enough in our society that setting goals can somehow seem to be too serious, not relaxed or “not organic”. So how do we set a new standard of accountability and excellence, yet still maintain our laid-back, hipster image? We must be forward-thinking and backward-looking.
Being forward-thinking means that we must start out with the end in mind. We must have a goal before we get started, which to some puts you in the category of “brilliant visionary” and to others “nerd”. But it is more simple than the first and more cool than the second. The marathoner doesn’t just start out running haphazardly, somehow expecting to be ready to run 26.2 miles within a few hours. No! He sets a training schedule based on a reasonable expectation of completion time, then he diligently implements that schedule, even in bad weather. In the same way, we have to decide beforehand what our goals will be and how we will know if we have met them.
So, say you were wanting to help your school’s Boy Scout troop do a community service project of cleaning the roadsides around the school. You would decide beforehand what the definition of clean is – this might include trash picked up, leaves raked, twigs and fallen limbs removed, and maybe grass trimmed and mowed. Maybe it only includes some of those. Then, during the project if one Scout is not meeting the definition of clean, he can be held accountable and sent back out to rake or trim more thoroughly, or whatever he has fallen short in. But if there is no goal, any work, even shoddy work, is OK.
Being backward-looking means that along the way we must check, as a group, to see how our progress has come along toward that goal. If that same scout troop knew they had 2 miles of roads to clean up and half of their time had passed, then they should have completed 1 mile. If at the halfway point of time the troop is less than halfway in progress, then they can figure out what is slowing the work down and change their plan. In that way, problems could be identified quickly and solved, while the group as a whole kept their pace up to ensure completion within the given time frame. Or maybe they realized that another day would be needed to finish the job to the accepted standard. That day can be scheduled and the community aware of the extension in the project time. That might even motivate some community members to come out and help too, just to save the troop from the second service day!
Every project, even a modest one like a road clean-up day, should have a goal so that the participants and those being served can acknowledge the job is done – and so that there is a natural break time for evaluation of the project. Any project that goes on seemingly forever is disheartening to those helping out and will eventually cause volunteers to abandon ship due to burnout. Working without stop toward an undefined goal will feel like toil, not joyful work, even in service. On the other hand, goals give us something to celebrate when we achieve them, something we as leaders should provide for anyone sacrificing their time to give back to the community. Remember, we are still human after all, not emotionless robots, and we need to feel like our work makes a difference.