Editorial Notebook

Clubs require care, love

Student-run clubs at college can often act as microcosms of bigger, real-world organizations or companies. That makes them ideal practice grounds for challenges most students will face later in life. At RPI, it’s easy to join a club, and it takes very little effort to start a new one. Of course, many of these start-up clubs fall flat. Even relatively big organizations that have existed for a while on campus sometimes have trouble with new, inexperienced leaders when the older members graduate.

How can you avoid the common pitfalls and help your new or struggling organization succeed? What follows are some repeated problems I’ve seen in clubs I joined. These are probably obvious mistakes to any first-year management student, but they might not be so apparent to us science and engineering types.

One big issue that especially plagues small or new organizations, even down to project groups in classes, is the bystander effect. Essentially, a task assigned to a group is less likely to get done than a task assigned to an individual. Don’t send out a mass e-mail asking, “Can anyone pick up the club registration form at the Union office?” Instead, pick someone and ask them individually to get the form, preferably in person. Make sure each task has a specific person responsible for its completion. It’s not about “knowing who to blame,” though. It’s about avoiding the mentality of “someone else will do it.”

Another easy to fix but often-overlooked problem is communication. Regular meetings between a group’s leaders help keep the organization on track. Use low-latency forms of communication like phone calls and text messages when possible—you don’t want to be stuck waiting on an e-mail reply for a day or two. Not being up-to-date on your club’s current status is a rookie mistake, but it happens more often than you’d think.

Finally, avoid giving tedious or repetitive tasks to large groups of people—in other words, bureaucracy is bad. The simpler and easier it is for each member of the organization to do his or her job, the more likely they are to actually do it. When setting up new structures, make sure to think in practical terms. Even if an idea is really good, it’s no help if people won’t follow the complicated procedure it requires.

One interesting thing to note: You don’t need to be in charge to implement most of these things. If you see bystander effect problems cropping up, you can “assign” tasks by simply asking your peers if they will do them (don’t forget “please”!). You can let other members of your organization know about new developments as soon as you hear about them to keep up communication.

Of course, these few rules aren’t a magical formula for success. Having a successful organization takes planning and leadership—there’s no substitute for that. However, if you’re looking for somewhere to start, these guidelines aren’t bad to keep in mind.