Dealing with would-be free riders

Today’s NYTimes article about the Park Slope Food Coop addresses an issue that plagues many organizations. How do you motivate members to keep contributing, rather than just “free riding” off the efforts of other, productive members? According to the article, rather than rely on paid staff like most grocery stores, the Park Slope Food Coop runs mainly on members’ efforts. To encourage members to contribute, the Coop relies on a dual carrot and stick approach. The carrot consists of access to desirable produce and goods at lower prices. The stick consists of having to make-up double shifts for every missed shift during a designated time period, or risk being dropped as a member (errant members can re-apply once if they pay the membership fee again). But, as the article points out, certain kinds of members can easily fall on the sidelines. Single parents, those with partners who do not want to work in the coop, those with demanding jobs, etc. are at a disadvantage.

Burning Man, like other organizations that rely upon volunteers, has faced similar issues, although it hasn’t adopted the approach of the Park Slope Coop. Volunteer coordinators recognize that some volunteers might get distracted, particularly during the event, and plan accordingly. In other cases, organizers realize that some tasks have to be compensated to ensure that the work will get done according to their satisfaction. For more on this topic, see chapter 5 in my Enabling Creative Chaos book.

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