Rucking Great Volunteers

A close friend, an investment banker, once gave me some advice. “Your problem,” he said, “is that your clients make no profit. You need better clients.”
He made a lot of sense. Yet there’s something appealing about work in the voluntary sector that’s hard to explain. The spirit of voluntarism is obviously part of it.

When there are people donating precious time, money, talent, and credibility to a cause, the professionals around them are inspired to do more for less best. It’s more difficult to feel the same kind of inspiration in a government or commercial context, where tangible rewards are generally more important to everyone.

Sometimes the good will and generosity that sustains the voluntary sector gets obscured by success. As non-profit organizations acquire layers of paid staff, it gets harder to see the undercurrent of selflessness that once propelled the organization forward.

I’m not complaining or criticizing anyone. I think it’s a matter of personal perspective. The organizations that can afford consultants like me tend to be larger and more monied than those who don’t. The more money there is, the more likely it is that the organization has acquired the resources and assets needed for long term, stable operation, and the less likely it’s still relying on volunteer effort.

But the spirit of voluntarism is there, either vital or vestigial, left from the time of incorporation. I was reminded of it’s importance while chairing the annual general meeting (AGM) of my rugby club, the Toronto Scottish RFC.

In large, prestigious non-profit organizations, there are people working hard to minimize demands on board members’ time. It’s not uncommon for lunch or breakfast to be served. Paperwork is prepared and waiting for them to read and sign. Staff are assigned to expedite matters, greeting and seating members. A secretary is assigned to take minutes.

That’s not how it is at the Toronto Scottish AGM. One by one members file into a private room in a mid-town tavern, each doffing their coats and heading straight to the bar. It reminds me of the scene in the Hobbit, when the dwarfs arrive unexpectedly at Bilbo’s house where they eat and drink everything and recruit him to their mission. The difference being, of course, that rugby people tend to be larger than average, whereas dwarfs are, well, dwarfs.

No one has come because they enjoy spending hours in meetings. Nor has anyone come to seek personal or professional advantage. There is no resume padding and no payment for anyone. They attend out a sense of duty to the Club and to each other, nothing more.

Although there are a few suits among them, there is nothing slick about the proceedings. There is a quiet scramble to ensure that we have quorum and that the necessary paperwork is done. An hour late, I get the signal to begin.

Little has changed in this routine over the Club’s 60-year history. The Toronto Scottish now have hundreds of registered players, thousands of alumni worldwide, a six-digit budget, and a couple of hundred thousand dollars in assets. Yet it still has no permanent Toronto field for training or games, and no clubhouse, both mainstays of club rugby in other places. The AGM, like all aspects of the Club’s operation, runs on the good will and generosity of its members.

I call the meeting to order, warning everyone that that I run a tight agenda. Before my time, these meetings turned into three or four hour marathons. Participation declined, making it ever more difficult to achieve quorum. Short meetings mean better attendance. I suspect some people have come just to watch how I deal with longwinded speakers.

Motions are made, reports are received, board elections are held, and the meeting is adjourned. I intercede only to introduce topics or speakers, to close unproductive discussions, or to prompt people to make and second each motion. My record time is an hour and 23 minutes.

Significantly, there were no contested board positions. Being on the board means doing a lot of work with little reward or recognition. In some large, professionalized organizations, the most senior staff members are employed by and report to the Board. However Toronto Scottish board members exist to serve the members and are never treated deferentially. Everyone officer is acclaimed rather than elected, meaning they didn’t resist as vigorously as those who declined to serve.

Amazingly, many board members are also elite players. The extra hours they spend on their board duties are minor in relation to the hundreds of hours they spend each year in weight rooms or on fields, preparing themselves for competition. Most have full time jobs, some have young families, but in rugby culture, all this must be juggled without failing to fulfill commitments to the game.

This is true of rugby culture almost anywhere. With few exceptions, clubs run on the quiet effort of many people, each sacrificing a little for the great satisfaction of seeing everyone succeed. Because, make no mistake, as goes the Board, so goes the Club. It takes years of good work off the field to organize the facilities, coaching, recruitment, sponsors, equipment, transportation, and medical care required to win consistently on the field.

I have witnessed this in my 14 years with this club. Incalculable hours of volunteer effort has helped raise this amateur sports club up through three levels to compete at the highest division in the Province, where this year it finished first in the standings. As a club, top to bottom, all five of its senior teams were contenders to win it all, including the women, and its ranks will continue to swell as its junior teams and mini programs grow.

Everyone who has been a part of this knows, on some level, that the way forward starts at the AGM and ends in heartbreak or joy on a muddy field 10 months later. It’s a long campaign, collectively demanding tens of thousands of hours out on the field, training and playing in all kinds of weather. Blood will be spilled and bones will be broken, but in rugby culture it’s all worth it.

To give these athletes their chance, someone has to take responsibility for planning and resources. So it’s a beautiful thing to watch these extraordinary people tramping in on a dark snowy night to attend their Club’s AGM. They may not grasp the relevance of every single motion, nor have much patience for Robert’s Rules of Order, but they know that their enterprise is led by stewards, chosen from amongst them, who seek nothing more than a good result for the Club.

Perhaps this good will and generosity is why rugby clubs stay connected to their members from cradle to grave. I have often seen three generations of a family at the field and two at the bar. Very young members often chat with old timers over a pint after a game, accepting unsolicited advice or sharing a joke. A rugby club is a community. In contrast, most sports shed their players when they’re too old to continue.

Although I was miserably cold and tired when I arrived, I was glad to have chaired that AGM. In fact I stayed talking to a friend until closing time. I left feeling energized by the plain, simple, honest effort everyone had made that year.

Somewhere inside every non-profit client, there must be the same selfless impulse. Maybe I need to look harder for it, or where it has faded, try to revive it. And just maybe, I need to look within myself first.

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