Ask Ellie & Jill: Community Events Overload

Posted on May 7, 2018

In the series, ELGL members can anonymously send their questions, difficulties or scenarios to and receive a response from the ghost writing response team. Your name, organization and other details will not be shared in the posting or subsequent response.

Dear Ellie & Jill,
I’m a rising mid-level manager in a City that hosts a *very important community event* like a music festival or fundraiser or carnival of some sort very frequently. Most often these events are organized by a community group (not the City itself), like the Kiwanis or the convention board. I’m getting the impression that my coworkers and I are expected to volunteer for something, or at least attend the event with our families. City Council members, my bosses and coworkers all buzz about what booth they’ve signed up to work, or what a great time they had at the event last weekend, and my social media feed gets jammed with promotional posts & event photos.
It seems to me that there is an unspoken expectation to participate in these events. Whenever I press my boss to see if I’m expected to go, I get a vague response that it’s not mandatory but the success of these events depends on the efforts of their volunteers. I already put in more than full-time hours, staff multiple night meetings, and spend my free time reading up new ideas in my field. I don’t want to give up my weekends too. Is opting out of volunteering for events going to hamper my opportunities for growth?
Too Many Commitments

Dear TMC,
Oh man. We’re getting events season PTSD just reading your letter. Working for a vibrant community that has a packed events calendar is a double-edged sword. These events make your community a vital and desirable place to live and work, but they can indeed take a lot out of the volunteers that run them.
We have a couple different bits of advice when it comes to staff participation in community events. Hopefully some of it will work for you.
You should be involved and invested in the community.
A City isn’t a factory that shuts down when you leave for the day. Stopping by a festival or fundraiser, even for just a few minutes, will give you a better understanding of the what the community is like outside of City Hall and can give you the opportunity to connect with residents in a meaningful way. Your city leadership will appreciate seeing that you are engaged and invested in the community and that visibility may well help you progress in your career.
If your time is limited, specialize.
If you can’t commit to volunteering for every event that pops up on the calendar, pick one or two events that resonate with you, and put your energies there. We have a friend that always volunteers to work the gate on the first day of a big community music festival. She’s been doing it for so many years, that everyone knows she’ll be there, rain or shine. This visibility reinforces her commitment to the community and has served her well.
If you can, work to improve communication about expectations.
Whether it’s an unspoken rule about volunteering at festivals, or a super-secret dress code that you’re breaking without knowing it, understanding management’s expectations shouldn’t have to be difficult. A lot of times, managers don’t want to codify their expectations about these types of things, because they don’t want to come off as overbearing and want to allow some flexibility. That said, it’s really tough for employees when the rules of the game aren’t clearly spelled out. If you’re in a position of authority in your organization, work toward eliminating unspoken rules—and clearly stating expectations up front. In one town we know, HR added language about community involvement expectations in the senior manager evaluation templates. In that case, the City committed to paying the annual dues for department heads to participate in one community group (to be approved by the CAO), and that meetings could be attended on work time. In another town we know, the CAO clearly shares with it’s senior leaders that they should plan to volunteer for at least one community event per year.
Finally, be mindful of burnout.
From your letter, it sounds to us like you’re starting to feel burnt out, even without the addition of the nebulous volunteerism expectations. We urge you to take some time to evaluate your time and workload and create some intention around balancing your commitments. It’s also fair to spend some time thinking about whether or not you’re happy in your current job. If the idea of spending your free time at a community event is making your skin crawl, maybe there’s something more to the story than just your workload?
Hopefully this helps, TMC. We’ll be rooting for you.
Your friends,
Ellie & Jill

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