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Dealing With Apathy

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Dealing with Apathy

“Members won’t participate. They sit there or they talk among themselves. Meetings take forever because we can’t make decisions. Some don’t even come anymore. They are just apathetic and there’s nothing I can do about it!”

Are you dealing with bored members who don’t want to participate? If this sounds familiar to you, don’t panic. At one time or another it happens to the best of organizations, so what can you do when it happens to YOU?

Apathy is a symptom – So what’s the problem?

  1. Does your group lack skills in solving problems or accomplishing tasks?  When members lack the skill to problem solve, we may find behavior patterns as follows:

  1. No one is able to suggest how to start

  2. Members do not stay focused on the problems

  3. Members seek ways to dodge problems rather than solve problems

  4. There is continual sidetracking or joking to change the subject

  5. Members expect the leader to make decisions for the group

  6. There are decisions, but the members are indecisive

  7. When decisions are made, members have not taken all considerations into account first

  1. Are your goals important and relevant to your group’s needs?
  1. Have you reviewed your organization’s constitution as an entire group in the last year?

  2. Have you assessed the needs of your members through formal and informal surveys?

  3. Have you taken the time as a group to set goals and objectives for the entire year?

  4. Has the group set expectations for its officers and have the officers shared expectations of members?

  5. Has the organization taken the time to plan and participate in a retreat away from campus?

  6. Are all of your members involved in a specific aspect of your organization?

  1. When members are given responsibility, they feel more responsible to the group. Members become apathetic when they feel powerless in the final decision. Committees soon become dormant when they are set up to pacify or divert. Such committees see no point in “knocking themselves out” merely to have their work ignored. The quickest way to produce apathy is to ask for a suggestion, then to ignore it. Members feel frustrated when they behave as follows:
  1. Members say their work will be pigeon-holed
  2. There is much talk about power, prestige, and influence
  3. Doubts are voiced about “wasting our time”
  4. There are complaints about the important people not being present
  5. The group lacks responsibility; it wastes time and makes no effort to decide

“When people become involved in the problem, they become significantly and sincerely committed to coming up with solutions to the problem.” (Covey, 1991)


We accomplish all that we do through delegation- either to time or to other people. If we delegate to time, we think efficiency. If we delegate to other people, we think effectiveness. Transferring responsibility to other skilled and trained people enables you to give your energies to other high-leverage activities. Delegation means growth, both for individuals and for organizations (Covey, 1989)

Stewardship Delegation

There are certain skills involved in successful delegation in order to allow your members to feel responsible to the project, committee, or group as a whole. By simply telling a person to “go for it”, and get the job done, that person will not be committed to achieving results. A more successful way of delegating is referred to as “stewardship delegation” by Stephen Covey. This style focuses on results instead of methods. It gives people a choice of method and makes them responsible for results. Stewardship delegation involves clear, up-front mutual understanding and commitment regarding expectation in five areas. It takes more time in the beginning, but it’s time well invested.

  1. Visualize the desired result clearly and concisely by focusing on the what, not the how.

  2. Establish guidelines by pointing out potential failure path, and what not to do, but don’t tell them what TO do. Allow people to learn from mistakes without re-inventing the wheel.

  3. Identify resources the person can draw on to accomplish the desired goal.

  4. Establish accountability standards of performance that will be used in evaluating the results.

  5. Specify consequences, both good and bad, tied to evaluation of performance.

Inspiring a shared vision and Enabling others to act (Kouzes and Posner, 1987)

Leaders inspire a shared vision, they don’t command commitment. Through intimate knowledge of the dreams, hopes, aspirations, visions, and values of the members of their organization, leaders are able to enlist support and drive from their members. Successful leaders encourage collaboration by making it possible for others to do good work.

Successful leaders are team players who consult with all the members of the organization, inventory the strengths of individuals and consider what is important to the whole group.

Before you can tackle a problem, such as apathy, that may be affecting the success of your organization, ask yourself; are struggles for power and prestige throwing your group into conflict? Consider the following behavior cues:

  1. Ideas are attacked before they are completely expressed.

  2. There are arguments about inconsequential points.

  3. There are arguments about rules and procedures.

  4. There are no attempts made to set goals.

  5. Random suggestions are offered, many of which are beside the point.

  6. Members form cliques, demand support for special issues and refuse compromise.

  7. The most talkative monopolize the time.

  8. There are subtle attacks upon the messenger, rather than the message.

  9. There are frequent references to “I”, “me”, and “my experience,” etc.

Quit crying apathy

“Let us quit crying apathy when our members don’t participate, and instead let us begin to look for the real reason behind the lack of support.” (Cufaude, 1985).

  1. Consider what your members want, instead of what you think your members want.

  2. Plan activities with everyone in your organization, not just within cliques.

  3. Work together to set goals, don’t just set goals for your group on your own.

Covey, Stephen. (1991). Principle-centered leadership. New York: Fireside.
Covey, Stephen. (1989). The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. New York: Fireside.
Cufaude, Jeff. “Positive Peer Pressure: Motivating the silent majority”. Campus Activities Programming. December, 1985, pp. 28-30.
Kouzes, J.M. and Posner, B.Z. (1987). The Leadership Challenge. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.


Source: S.O.A.R.; Center for Student Involvement; Norris University Center; Northwestern University

Used with permission.

Association Xpertise Inc. (AXI) is a full-service company providing consulting and other services to associations and non-profits.    Details


JULY 2004
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