Posted on August 26, 2009

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This entry is part 3 of 6 in the series The defunct'ness of the polyamory movement

Series Disclaimer: This series is the result of conversations that I’ve had with fellow poly leaders, mixed with my own thoughts, experiences, and observations. While it seems that a lot of us have similar experiences and thoughts, these writings do not represent the beliefs of poly leaders as a whole.  These writings are not meant to target specific individuals or organizations, but instead show how “the system” is defunct and needs a lot of TLC and fixing.

In the past few posts I discussed what changes need to be made both on a legislative and social front in order for poly people to be able to be “out” about their lifestyle choices (if they so choose), with less ramifications than what would happen if they were to “out” themselves today.

Today I will discuss how we’re currently going about doing that – as well as some potential problems with the status quo.

This is by no means a thorough, scientific survey, but rather the compilation info from several poly organizer-types across the country sharing their own observations.  The general consensus is that we’re a bunch of tired, overworked, over-stressed people. My thoughts as to the “why” are detailed below.

A look into current polyamory organizations and leadership

For the sake this analysis, I will define a structured poly organization as one that some or all of the following characteristics:

  • An identifiable individual or group that are seen as “leaders”, or a formalized system for decision-making
  • A centralized system of communication
  • A document outlining the group’s intent
  • Codified standards as to what counts as appropriate or inappropriate behavior within the group, with potential consequences should the standards of behavior be broken (i.e. censorship within the group or expulsion)
  • Planned social activities for the benefit of  the group members

When you have a  structured poly organization, it is not unusual to only have a small percentage of the membership participate on the communication boards or take part in social events on a regular basis.  In addition to that, of the minority that are active within the group, it’s not unheard of to have the majority of the planning, organizing, doing, and maintaining of the group done by an even smaller subset of people. Of that subset of volunteers, it is possible that only a fraction of them are efficient and effective at getting stuff done.

There appears to be some gaps between the number of people that identify as being members of a group, those that actively participate in the group’s activities, and those that commit their time and resources to keeping the group running.   What’s going on there?

The 80-20 rule

The business world has a term for that: the 80/20 rule or the principle of the “vital few and trivial many”.  The rule means that in any group, the ones that are vital – the major contributors – are in the minority (20%).  Likewise, the trivial – those who either don’t contribute or contribute little – are in the majority (80%).  This rule can apply to just about anything:

  • Wealth ownership (20% owns 80% of the property)
  • Productivity (20% of the participants yield 80% of the production)
  • Project management (20% of the key tasks take up 80% of the project’s time)
  • Our closets (20% of our wardrobe is worn 80% of the time)
  • Drama (20% of the people cause 80% of the drama/complaints)

To apply this to polamory groups:

  • 20% of the group’s membership takes up 80% of the group’s resources – this is represented by the “regulars” within the organization who participate on the discussion forums and go to the events
  • Of the people that are considered active members of the group, 20% will provide 80% of the resources that are needed to keep the group functional (volunteering, donating $, etc.)

In other words, 4% of the group membership (20% of 20% who are active), is responsible for 80% of the time/money/resource contributions to the group, which ends up only benefiting the 20% that actively participate.

Scary stats, huh?

Let’s use some real numbers in our example. Let’s say that we have an organization that has 125-some members that are signed up on the group’s message board.

If you were to do a census of how many people regularly attended various social events and activities, you could estimate that around 25 people would be regular attendees (20% of 125= 25).  You may have a large number of members that periodically show up to random events, but they are not people that you’d consider to be “regulars”.

When you take a look at the events – both in time and money spent to organize and pull them off – they probably take up the majority of the total volunteer time and money that was raised for the benefit of the organization.

Now let’s talk about the the people that volunteer. With regards to any specific event or project, if the 80/20 rule is applied again, I could count the number of major contributors on one hand (20% of 20% of 125 = 5).  This isn’t to say that only 5 people volunteer. There may be many more that do various tasks or find other ways of contributing, but the vital pool of movers, shakers, and financial patrons is rather small.

If this vital group of contributors have strong personal boundaries on how much of themselves they will give to the group, and they are aiding the organization out of a sense of enjoyment and camaraderie, then everything is ok.  However, given the likelihood of burn-out among leader-types, this may not be the case.  They may be overextending themselves time-wise, emotionally, and materially to get stuff done. So in this scenario we have 5 people that take it upon themselves to put in a lot of time, money, and effort (to the point of sacrifice at some times), for something that they think will benefit 125 people (the whole group), of which 25 people will reap the majority of the reward.

Of course, the percentages are not always 80/20.  In actuality, they could be 90/10, 70/30, or something in between.

One other detail that I discovered during my informal survey of poly movers & shakers – the core volunteers are typically the “leaders” of the respective organizations.

For those of you that are being asked to join the leadership side of a polyamory group – you have been warned! You are signing up for lots of volunteer work! :p

Complacency vs. apathy vs. Options C, D, E

Why is it that leaders of polyamory groups take on so much work compared to the rest of the group? Here are some of my theories:

  • Apathy – the members of the group feel indifferent about the benefits of active group membership. They do not deeply connect with the group to the point of wanting to make a difference.  (I will discuss this more in depth on Friday when I discuss the potential overuse of the word “community” when describing groupings of poly people)
  • Complacency – the members of the group accept the status-quo and do not believe that it is in their best interest to try and change things
  • Selfishness – members of the group like reaping the benefits of the volunteers. They believe that their involvement will not yield increasing benefits for them, and realize that regardless of what they do/don’t do, the current volunteers will still get everything done.
  • A lack of – a lack of time, a lack of resources, etc.  In other words, helping out is a lower priority compared to everything else
  • A strong sense of autonomy (the “herding cats” syndrome) where individuals appreciate having people act as guides and role models, but do not want to be “led”.  There are some schools of thought that disdain leadership roles because they see it as an unjust system of placing someone in power over others
  • Leaders of polyamory groups are insane, deluded martyrs – as a leader within the local polyamory group, and after hearing about the frustration of other poly leaders across the country, I tend to think this is the most applicable option.

In my next post, I will take a look into the mind of us poly leader types, and why we’re so messed up. :)

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1 Comment

  1. [...] my most recent posts, I applied the business rule of 80/20 to the polyamory community, both in what percentage of people within an organization are actively [...]

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  • Done with series. Final post appearing in an hour. Final word count: 9165 O.o 13 hrs ago
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