A recent conference of community organisations assembled to address a pressing problem: they just weren’t getting the volunteers they needed. This had always been an issue for them but numbers took a sharp dive a few years back and what was a challenge could soon become a crisis.

Imagine the emotional content of the room, a heady mix of anxiety and frustration with a dash of blame and anger. And then there’s the unease that comes with any new and unfamiliar challenge, that feeling of inadequacy we all get when facing an unprecedented situation. If these people are to solve their problem, they’re going to have to get past all that baggage in a hurry.

So I asked if any of them had ever been fishing.

Many had. So I shared with them my total failure as a fisherman and asked them to list all the reasons why that might be. And as it happens, there were many.

Maybe the fish just weren’t there right at that exact minute; was I fishing at the wrong time? Maybe there were no fish to be caught at that particular place; was I fishing in the wrong spot? Maybe the fish didn’t particularly like what’s being offered; was I using the wrong bait? Or was technique the problem? Was there someone upstream who’s catching all ‘my’ fish before I did?

And here’s a thought – was I chasing the wrong kind of fish?

So I asked them the same questions about those elusive volunteers:

Is the recruitment drive happening where the potential volunteers might be, or just where they used to be? Could it be that they’ve moved on, but we haven’t? Should we review the timing of the recruitment process – maybe we’re targeting them at the wrong time of the year/month/day?

Are we offering the old traditional benefits and incentives to a society that has shifted its expectations and values? Is it time we chuck out the old bait and try something a little… fresher?

Does our technique still work as well as it used to? Mainstream media and community promotions used to do the trick but maybe it’s time we explored the possibilities of social media. Are other volunteer groups doing a better job of talking to our demographic than we are?

Which raises another question: over the past few decades the demographics have changed much faster than we have. Have we lost touch the community that we once had such a good handle on? Maybe we’re not getting them because… we’re just not getting them?

Of course, every metaphor has its limits. But the right one not only offers valuable insights into your current conundrum, but a few obvious solutions as well.

So if you’re really struggling with a problem, try fishing for clues somewhere else.


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Written by Jason Clarke

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Celebrated author, adventurer, gold medal Olympian and popular TV chef; Jason is none of these things. He is, however, one of the most sought-after creative minds in the country. As founder of Minds at Work, he’s helped people ‘think again’ since the end of the last century, working with clients across Australia in virtually every industry and government sector on issues ranging from creativity and trouble shooting to culture change and leadership.