Voluntary societies in crisis

A year ago I wrote (in Triple Whammy) about voluntary organisations in decline as members aged. Here I extend the analysis to other demographic inequalities and then look at their death spiral in more detail.

(1) Diversity and organisational health

There’s a tipping point in any group below which any minority begins to feel marginalised and above which they can feel comfortable, heard, accepted.

Let’s be clear: I’m saying only that being a member of a small minority, anywhere, usually makes life more difficult. (That shouldn’t be controversial.) What defines a person as a “minority” below is just being different enough that they don’t fit in socially. I’m not talking about active discrimination, but about mutual awkwardness or inability to relax.

Just to narrow the focus, let’s talk about groups of 10 – 30 people.

My suggestion, based on my own repeated observations, is that a single minority person is below that tipping point in any group of more than four or five people, while two or more minority people are below it if they constitute less than a quarter of the group.

  • One minority person will probably leave unless they already have friends in the group.
  • Two have some mutual support and may survive.
  • Three or four will probably be okay.
  • Five – eight should be fine; constituting more than a quarter of the group makes them “normal”.

Age is one aspect of difference, one axis of exclusion, and it’s the one I will soon look at more closely. Other than that, we’re well aware of inclusivity issues around gender, race and sexual preference. Disparities in religion, education and wealth may sometimes be socially difficult, too. Any of these numerical imbalances can increase gradually to the point that they are irreversible without targeted action – or ever.

Why do imbalances matter (so much)?

Because societies are composed of “like-minded” individuals. “We” like people like “us” and choose to associate with them, or feel uncomfortable with people not like us.

Newcomers in any group are particularly vulnerable because the existing members can still talk to each other (and do!) but the new member has no-one to talk to unless the others reach out to them; and anything above a certain level of discomfort (on either side) is likely to be fatal to their engagement with an organisation.

(2) Why does age matter (so much) more than other imbalances?

Because it is always, eventually, terminal. If a group becomes exclusively female, exclusively affluent, etc, it can still flourish indefinitely; but if it becomes exclusively old, its end is in sight. “Death spiral”, in fact, is not merely a figurative term.

Less importantly, perhaps, age often amplifies gender inequality. Men die younger than women so, all else being equal, there will be more women than men in any group of retirees. All else is rarely equal, of course, and a group which always had a slight majority of women will see that majority increase steadily. Soon after, men thinking of participating will see a group that appears to exclude people like themselves.

Death spirals

A century ago, the stick-and-string aeroplanes of WW1 were liable to go into a “death spiral” which was, as the name suggests, invariably disastrous. A descending turn would get tighter and tighter, faster and faster, until pulling out of it was impossible. It’s a good metaphor for many and varied processes in which feedback is important.

Organisations can fall into them. The feedback loop goes like this:

1. Large membership, all of one generation
2. members drift away but no younger members join
[so far, not a real problem]
3. smaller membership, all of the founding generation
4. belated efforts to recruit younger members
5. younger people look at the group and say “but they are all old!” and stay away
6. members drift away or pass away
[repeat 3-6 ad lib]
7. younger people look at the group and say “but they are all really old!” and stay away
8. members drift away or pass away
9. smaller membership still, still all of the founding generation
10. group is too small to achieve anything
11. more desperate efforts to recruit younger members
12. young people look at the group and say “but they are all really old, and the group doesn’t even do anything!” and stay away.
[repeat 8 – 12 until the last members dissolve the group]

Point 5 is critical. Beyond it, reviving the group becomes increasingly difficult, and by point 7 the group is well into its death spiral.

Lessons from species recovery

Species in decline can be brought back from the brink. Ecologists have had a lot of practice in making that happen and it’s wonderful that they can do it so often, but the point I want to make is that species don’t come back from their death spiral without outside help. They need people protecting the last survivors, or improving their environments, or whatever.

Could we apply this to recovery of a voluntary society?

I think we could. I don’t think we ever do.

One option is for a healthy society to take a nurturing role towards the weakened one: to use their networks to increase its visibility, to encourage its own members to join (and to serve on the committee), etc. Call it a friendly takeover if you like, but the ultimate aim will be to have two viable societies instead of one and a husk. The good news is that if terminal societies are down to their last dozen members, reviving one takes fewer than half a dozen recruits. The not-so-good news is that they all need to join at about the same time, and the older members need to welcome the takeover.

The complementary option is for the ailing society, on its dissolution, to encourage its members to join, and to sign over its remaining assets to, a healthy one. The result will be one society, not two, but all the remaining energy of the failing one will be kept together instead of being dispersed and lost.

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