Don’t Let Legacy Projects Ossify Your Organization

“How can we take on that new project when we can’t even find the people to run the projects we already have?”

If an organization has been around long enough, it has legacy projects. A legacy project is a project that was created in the past by a well respected member and does (or used to) create powerful outcomes.

It could be a fundraiser. It could be a community service project. It could be a social event.

What is important is that it’s been around for a while and the club feels an obligation to keep it running. It has gone from being a project of the club to being a core function of the club, whether it is or not.

And if you’re not careful, it could destroy your club.

Let’s imagine that your club has run an annual awards dinner for years, and that dinner is a big fund raiser and awareness builder. Gala chair is now a key leadership role in the club, but the person who did it last year doesn’t really want to do it again, and most of the members have chaired the gala already, sometimes twice.

You have a newer member who is enthusiastic to get involved and start taking action. The new member is passionate about literacy programs and has a great idea they want to launch.

The excited, enthusiastic, engaged young member comes to the leaders and shares the literacy program they want to launch.

The response they get it, “that’s great, but what we really need is someone to chair the gala, and I think you’d be great for it.”

Of course, what they mean is, we need someone to chair the gala and you have a pulse.

Maybe the member takes on the responsibility and maybe they don’t. Either way, the way this story usually goes is that that excited, enthusiastic, engaged young member becomes much less excited, enthusiastic, and engaged.

They were excited about the literacy project. They’re willing to run the gala.

The thinking goes that a club shouldn’t be taking on new projects if they don’t have the resources to run the old ones, but that thinking treats members like productive machines and not people with passions and interests.

The club does not have the resources to run the gala. No one is excited about it. However, the club does have the resources to run the literacy project. This new member who doesn’t really want to run the gala will work day and night, excite their fellow members, and possibly even recruit new members to run the project they are passionate about.

Often, a new member who faces this situation will end up leaving. They might run their project elsewhere, but more likely they get discouraged, never run their project and never join another service organization.

The gala still doesn’t get a new chair, but now the club has lost a potentially engaged and effective member.

The Solution

The limiting factor on most things that a service club or community organization does is member engagement. If members are excited enough they can raise money, find sponsors, get services donated, recruit more help.

A club with engaged members has everything. A club without them has nothing.

All the money in the world can’t replace the value of passionate members.

The solution to this problem is simple: allow the new members to launch their projects.

Even if you can’t give them money or labor, you can give them support.

They can get money from sponsors, donations, fundraisers, or whatever else their clever young mind comes up with.

They can get labor by recruiting volunteers from the community outside the club.

What they need from the club is a green light.

The green light lets them use the name of the club for credibility. It lets them feel they are supported even if you don’t give them a single dollar or a single minute.

They may succeed. They may fail. You must support them either way.

If they fail, congratulate them on their efforts. Ask them what they have learned so you can learn from them, and the whole club can benefit from their experience.

Never ever ever say “I told you so! I knew it wouldn’t work!”

There is no risk in letting them try their project, especially if you are not investing significant club resources. However, if you don’t let them follow their passion, there is a very high chance you will lose this member.

You will find that the member who has been allowed to follow their own passion, win, lose, or draw, will be much more open to helping out with that old legacy project next time.

But even if you can’t find someone to take over that legacy project, your club will be much healthier to have engaged members than venerable projects.

This is a chapter from my forthcoming book Grow Your Rotary Club in the 21st Century.

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