Volunteering: You may think it'll suck, but it won't

Medical Post
Helping Hand Column, October 24, 2006

Like a recent campaign for an Ottawa summer camp, we need to motivate physicians to get involved in professional groups

I cross my fingers as I pick up the phone to make the call. This is the fifth call I have made this evening for this purpose, and I hope I am on a winning streak. As past-president of the Ontario Psychiatric Association (OPA), it is my duty to head the nominations process and ensure we have a full slate of offices for the coming year’s council. Easier said than done! I am sure this is a sign of the stressful times we now live and work in. Everyone seems too busy; it is not easy to get colleagues to come out to yet another event and donate their time to yet another organization.

This is not specific to OPA. Numerous other medical associations are dealing with the same issue. Membership numbers are declining, and up to 25% of the current membership will be retiring in the coming decade. Even among groups where the membership rate is high as members show support by a financial contribution, the members are not actually playing an active role in the workings of the organization. Annual meetings are being scaled down, annual dinners are being modified or cancelled, and regular get-togethers are being deferred as fewer physicians take time to attend.

This is also not specific to medical organizations. I have heard similar laments in the academic arena, where many committees are having trouble recruiting new members. Other professions, such as law, dentistry and business, also share this concern. “People are just not coming out to events after work.”

A similar pattern is seen throughout our Western culture, as described by professor Robert Putnam from Harvard in his 1995 essay “Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital.” About 25% fewer voters are turning out at U.S. national elections. A Roper survey showed the number of Americans who attend public meetings has fallen since 1973, by about a third. There are similar declines in the numbers of people attending political speeches and rallies, serving on committees of local organizations, belonging to church-related groups or having memberships in labour unions.

The numbers of volunteers for civic organizations, such as Boy Scouts and Red Cross have declined markedly, by as much as 60% since 1970. Fraternal organizations such as the Lions, Shriners, Jaycees and the Masons have also witnessed substantial drops in memberships.

Recently I listened to a radio program on community organizations in Ottawa. The discussion centred on the adage that, “Bad news is good news” to groups, and that people need to feel a sense of being threatened to become actively involved. People ask, “What’s in it for me?” It is clear they requires a sense of ownership for involvement.

While it is wonderful that new generations are more aware than ever of the need and importance of balancing their work and home lives, they do not seem satisfied with the services provided by workplace organizations and see little value for their fees or time committed.

Medical organizations will need new innovative ways to attract memberships, and reverse these trends. I have suggested to colleagues at the OPA that we take a page from the city of Ottawa and try its methods. That worked to recruit my twin sons recently. They were too old to go to the usual summer camps or have a sitter, but too young to get a job. My suggestion that they attend an Ottawa summer leadership camp was met with rolling eyes and shoulder shrugs. Since they had not actually said no, I sent away for the brochure. I showed it to the boys when it arrived: On the cover was a picture of a boy about their age with a bubble over his head, in which were written the words, “I thought it would suck, but it didn’t.” Their sentiments exactly—they thought it would suck, too! They eventually called some friends, and as a group of six decided to try it out. It was a great success.

To date, a picture of me on an OPA brochure with a similar word bubble has not been approved by the council.

Seriously, we will need to work on identifying the issues that will motivate people to come out and work together. There is no need to create a crisis; there are plenty of them already within medicine to identify, and work together to resolve. As well, testimonials from colleagues already involved help make others consider doing the same. We will need to gather this information, and then make it known to our junior colleagues. The added value of working with colleagues from other parts of the city, province or country is wonderful. The sense of collegiality and the opportunity to network is a draw. Such involvement offers a chance to gain and strengthen administrative skills. Many colleagues appreciate the opportunity to advocate for patients as a group and make things happen that are not possible to do on one’s own.

I know the main reason I have become involved with medical organizations is because of a personal appeal. Someone I know, like and admire is always the instigator—they ask me to get involved, and I appreciate and accept the opportunity to work with them. Then, I am consistently impressed by how much fun and how productive it turns out to be.

That’s why I make the time to phone or e-mail others personally. As I make this call, I know that even if I can’t think of anything else to say, I can always tell them “I thought it would suck, but it didn’t.”

Mamta Gautam is an Ottawa psychiatrist who specializes in treating physician patients. If you have a question you would like addressed in this column, please contact Dr. Gautam at mgautam@rogers.com. Please include “Helping Hand” in the subject line. All inquiries will be confidential. Your questions will not be replied to, but may be selected to be answered in this column, which is intended to be educational, not therapeutic.