What a board game taught me about volunteer management

Not reaching a goal and beating yourself up for it? Focus on this instead.

We have a holiday tradition at my house. Every Thanksgiving, me, my husband, and my grown son gather round the table and play this board game (you probably know it) called Settlers of Catan.

Settlers of Catan is fun, and it’s complicated. There are all these resources that you have to acquire to win the game. And circumstances keep changing. You might be ready to score a point, but a role of the dice changes your prospects. You have to stay on your toes to have even a shot at winning.

And my son used to always win.

Always.

When that happened, I beat myself up for having no natural talent for board games, especially one as complicated as Settlers. I told myself I’m too chicken to take the big risks – I don’t stand my ground. Even so, it’s generally my idea to play this game – I still think it’s fun!

In all fairness, this is my son’s zone of genius. He can read the directions to a new game in, say, one minute, completely understand the rules, and conquer the board like he’s played it for years.

It’s perplexing.

Finally, one year, my husband asked my son what his secret was – why did he win every game? His answer? (no, it wasn’t cheating) He carefully chooses what resources to acquire and when, and he deliberately shifts his approach as the game unfolds, according to where we are in the process.

This might sound very logical, and it is. The eye opener for me was the reason why my son always wins. It has little to do with him being a bigger risk-taker or less of a wimp.

It had to do with strategy.

So what does any of this have to do with volunteer engagement? Here’s the connecting piece:

The things I was telling myself are very similar to the things that my coaching clients tell me when they are struggling to strengthen their volunteer program and encountering resistance. They blame their perceived inadequacies for the failure to meet their goals.

They beat themselves up for not having what it takes to prevail when there is conflict. They feel that they are fundamentally wired in a way that will not allow them to reach their goals. They conclude that they are just not up to the challenge.

But from my vantage point, that’s not at all what’s happening.  These leaders of volunteers are dedicated, persistent and focused on the common good.  What they need to do is get much more strategic about how to reach their goals.

Just like playing Settlers of Catan, getting strategic means carefully thinking through the situation, assessing your resources, and then sequencing who you approach and what you offer.

That’s why my Achieving Buy-In Session almost always includes an introduction to Backmapping, a process that that helps someone map out a strategic negotiation strategy.

And it’s why my next retreat will focus on negotiation strategies. So much of the resistance that we encounter is manageable – those moments are really opportunities to negotiate a different outcome. But we need more training in how to negotiate, because it’s not always intuitive. We need practice to master the techniques.

We need something else, too.

It doesn’t much matter what’s going on in your volunteer program – whether it’s co-workers who resist engaging volunteers – or volunteers who don’t want to comply with new policies – or leaders reluctant to fund the staff position you need.

To turn these situations around, you’ll need to make an internal shift. 

You’ll need to stop second-guessing your abilities, and accept your role as a strategist who learns through trial and error.

You’ll come up with plays and some of them won’t work. You’ll have to re-assess your plan and try something new. Along the way, you will gain the skills you need to reach your goals.

Because ultimately, it’s not about who you are, it’s about how you play the game.

p.s. Last year my husband won our Settlers match – and I was one point away from victory. Just eight weeks to go until we roll out the board. It’s anybody’s game.

 

Want to get more strategic about reaching your goals? My Six Principles of Buy-In apply in any strategy-building situation. Email me for the handout and worksheet.  – Elisa

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