The Mystery of Volunteerism


Roger and I belong to several cycling clubs including Different Spokes. All of them seem to struggle at one time or another with finding enough people to step forward to fill essential club roles such as producing a newsletter, plan events, do outreach, and lead rides. In the case of Valley Spokesmen and Grizzly Peak Cyclists, both of which are large clubs and put on annual century rides, even finding volunteers for the already organized scut work—making rest stop food, registration, clean up, etc.—has been hard work. Judging by newsletters convincing members to step forward and lead a ride is the most common complaint. Even now Different Spokes has not had an official Ride Coordinator for well over a year (but kudos to David Goldsmith for continuing to field ride waivers despite having given up the position). Fortunately Different Spokes rides are being regularly hosted despite the lack of a taskmaster to prod the membership; unfortunately it’s mainly by the usual suspects (primarily David Gaus, David Goldsmith, Joseph Collins, and me) taking the lead, with other members leading rides less frequently. The four of us are fairly prolific ride hosts so the Different Spokes calendar gets at least minimally populated through the year, and most weekends have at least one club ride.

Why people lead rides is probably due a great deal to personality type—some people want the attention (“All right Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up!”), some feel the need to give back, and some just need to be in control. I’m not sure which type I am but I do recall that not too long after I joined Different Spokes I didn’t think it was a big step for me to host a ride and I did so. Yet I realize that for some the prospect of hosting a club ride is daunting—maybe it’s the felt responsibility for the group, the feeling that “my rides are all boring—who’d want to do them?”, or the fear that no one would show up. Yes, I’ve hosted rides where no one else showed up, and you know what? I still got to do a great ride, as I often ride alone anyway. And I get to do the ride I want to do!

In the early days of the club there was actually—gasp!— competition in the elections to fill the officer positions. We had real elections, i.e. more than one person vying for the posts! Somewhere around the time Dennis Westler was President (the early ‘90s) competition for club positions waned. Dennis did such a superlative job as President that he was pressed into service year after year until it became a running joke that he was President-for-life and that we had become a ‘banana republic’. Now it’s like pulling teeth to get members to willingly take on the scut work of keeping the club alive and kicking. Besides the dull work of making sure we comply with 501(c)3 rules, we need enthusiastic folks to plan club events, handle communication, assist in running the website, pay bills, maintain the membership database, lead rides, and encourage new members.

Newer members may not realize that the club almost disappeared about 15 years ago. Club participation was declining and there was a proposal to fold Different Spokes into the SF Bicycle Coalition, to become a subgroup. There were enough believers in Different Spokes that the motion was defeated and a small cadre stepped forward to revitalize the club, which it did successfully. We ought to thank Chris Laroussell for stepping into the breach and reinvigorating our club. Chris could be a polarizing figure but she was enthusiastic, truly believed in Different Spokes, and volunteered when no one else would. We’re not exactly in the same situation today but we sure could use an injection of volunteerism from members.

What happened? During a period when both recreational and commuter bicycling are undergoing a resurgence, shouldn’t clubs like Different Spokes be growing by leaps and bounds? But clubs of virtually every persuasion, not just cycling clubs, are dealing with cultural pressures that are depressing engagement: lack of time due to long work schedules, general alienation and numbing, transience, and ever increasing superficiality in human interactions. With more acceptance of homosexuality in the Bay Area perhaps the pressure for LGBT folks to flock together has diminished. This is the post-gay hypothesis: LGBT folks are accepted ‘enough’ that we no longer are ghettoized or have to self-ghettoize for physical and psychological survival. A quick perusal of the media shows that despite having a lot of straight allies these days LGBT folks are still getting bashed physically and verbally, so I personally don’t believe we’re post-gay yet. “Religious freedom”, anyone? But it is easier than ever for LGBT cyclists to join a mainstream cycling club and at least not get overt flak if not downright acceptance. Grizzly Peak Cyclists is a fine example; Not only does the club have a large number of women members but lesbians and straight women seem to mingle concordantly.

My suspicion is that many LGBT clubs that were founded in the ‘70s and ‘80s have had a hard time maintaining membership and vibrant involvement. But I don’t think in Different Spokes’s case it is simply the membership aging out; our demographic doesn’t seem to be relentlessly shifting up much age-wise. Cycling in this country—it is slightly different in the UK and Europe—is such a solitary sport. You can do it by yourself, which is one of its attractions and advantages; you don’t need to field a team, a partner, or reserve a court/tee time/field. You just go out and ride. If LGBT cyclists come to Different Spokes and don’t feel like it’s their cup of tea, it may be a disappointment but it is no big deal to return to riding by oneself. I’m curious how the active members of Different Spokes came to see the club as their club enough to want to invest their energy. Was it a friendly encounter on a club ride, the type of rides we typically offer, a particular social event? There must have been a positive experience to induce folks to want to hang out with the club. Conversely those who sniff out the club and then decide it’s not for them either had a negative experience, realized that the club wasn’t exactly what they thought it was, or they just weren’t impressed and moved on.

Clubs can create energy and enthusiasm that leads to involvement and willingness to volunteer; it’s not just a matter of folks with energy and showing up and leading rides. If the space you create is welcoming, fun, purposive, lacks rancor, and meaningful, then people generally will step forward with little encouragement. People will commit to something they believe in and for which they have hope. Inspiration leads to action.