(This is an updated version of my Spring 2015 BPA Newsletter column.)
In February, Palo Alto Online published an article about the College Terrace neighborhood association that rang familiar: an organization that has been around for about four decades and which played an important role for many residents over the years has difficulty attracting new blood to its board and may be at risk of folding. As BPA newsletter readers know, the lack of new volunteers is something the BPA board has been grappling with as well over recent years.
Why is it so difficult to find more volunteers to organize events, watch out for neighborhood safety, interact with the city and developers, or publish the BPA newsletter? As our survey last year showed, it is not that residents don’t care about these issues. Quite the opposite is true: throngs of people come together for the May Fete and Movie in the Park, concerned residents attend city council meetings, and the newsletter consistently gets very high marks. The Barron Park community clearly values what the BPA has to offer. More than that, and more broadly, community gatherings, activism, and communication demonstrably lead to a more enjoyable, livable, and resilient community.
So why aren’t more folks stepping up to contribute? In the past, people joined the BPA board mainly for one of two reasons: either to simply contribute to the community they live in, or to get the BPA behind a specific cause they cared about (e.g., CPI). One obvious answer why there are fewer of the former is that people have less time to volunteer, both because more people work (and work longer hours) and because there are many more competing activities to choose from than decades ago. The latter — activists — still exist, but it’s easier than ever to voice your opinion or rally people using online tools and social media. While the BPA may provide more weight to an opinion, it also takes longer to act and has to be more considerate by its very nature (serving a large and diverse membership).
You may think of other reasons why fewer people make themselves available to the community. The effect is the same, though: most current board members have been in their roles for a long time, and new members are hard to recruit. As a result, several important committee chairs are vacant. Rather than just lament this situation, though, the board has been active to work out a “Plan B”: considering the outsourcing of some of its activities. For example, the fact that events bring neighbors together and thus lead to a vibrant and resilient community is not necessarily diminished by having events organized by professional event planners. While most of us would prefer to have volunteers from the neighborhood organize our events, it is more important to continue those events than to insist on free labor. This has in fact happened to the May Fete: our marquee event has become just too much for a volunteer group to organize, but by all accounts paying a professional to plan and run it for the last few years has done nothing to decrease its popularity. So that is what we are considering for other offerings from the BPA. We have some creative ideas, and I think some may change the BPA for the better. We’ll do it carefully, and certainly not for everything. We’ll also have to look at the financial impact, and perhaps we’ll have to raise membership dues (which haven’t changed in many years). None of this is decided yet, but this is the time to think about it. We are fortunate to have a solid organization with a strong history, which provides a good foundation for its next phase. (Since I first wrote this, a few people have stepped forward to volunteer and even join the BPA board. We still need more help in some of the departments. Check board meeting announcements for vacant chairs, or contact us with your interests. Even better: join us at a BPA Community Happy Hour!)
We’d like to hear your opinion on this issue. Send me an email to president at BPA palo alto dot org or post a comment here. We know that the BPA is a valued institution for many, but we can’t stand still if we want to remain relevant.