Boundaries and Community Development Work

A lot of community development work is done by volunteers, local non-profits and goverment agencies. The reality is that businesses are also involved in community development, but most people don't think of businesses as doing community development work.

In underdeveloped countries, you see starvation. In a place like the US, you are unlikely to literally starve in part because there is an abundance of grocery stores, restaurants, farms and so forth, yet we don't tend to think of such businesses as doing community development work.

We think of community development work as being about caring for our neighbors and as the kind of thing that gets done out of the goodness of our hearts. We tend to think of for-profit enterprises as cut throat, heartless and just in it for the money, but the reality is that people in the US are fed as well as we are largely due to the many businesses that grow food, transport food and sell food.

Some of that is given away, but most is not. We can give away some of it in part because there is abundance to begin with.

If you are in a really small community and you own a local business, you may be recognized more clearly as serving the public and being an important part of the fabric of the community. This is the case for a general store in a tiny community in Alaska where the owners travel once a week by boat to the nearest Costco to keep the town fed and supplied.

If you are a business owner, it's probably better to try to position yourself as "Just trying to do what makes sense (for my business)" rather than as "someone who is kind and generous" if at all possible. For example, if you own a hotel you could also run a blog to promote your hotel and the surrounding area, which could benefit the area generally but has a clear business purpose for you.

If you are in a really small community, I highly recommend that you try to simply start a business as your primary means to do community development. Figure out what goods or services are lacking and try to supply it.

I recommend that because there are a lot of inherent problems in giving away too much of your time and expertise for free. Though there can be valid reasons for just trying to solve a local problem and sometimes just doing it as volunteer work is the thing that makes the most sense.

But be realistic about the pitfalls ahead of time. If you do choose to do community development work as a citizen planner or an unpaid volunteer, you will need to figure out for yourself why you are doing this, what you are getting out of it and how much you are willing to give.

Maybe you are doing it because it will help lower crime and if that goal is met, that's enough of a pay off for you. If you make your community better, you get to live in a better community and sometimes that's all you need out of it.

Even if you are really clear about your expectations and boundaries going in, things can still go sideways. Being kind to "random strangers" sometimes just brings out the absolute worst in other people.

Okay, I have scars. This happens far more often than I think it should.

I have this bizarre idea that if I'm nice to people, they should be nice back. In reality, people are fairly frequently abusive to you if you are nice to them.

I've done a lot of volunteer work over the years and people are inevitably awful to volunteers. They expect volunteers to be just as reliable as paid employees -- which I try to be -- and if you succeed, they will happily heap more work on you which they will expect you to complete for free like you've always done, oblivious to the fact that this amounts to treating you abusively and demanding slave labor.

On top of that, the act of being kind and generous to someone -- especially someone really needy -- seems to sometimes bring out a particular kind of insanity where people promptly turn into vampires looking to bleed you endlessly rather than being grateful and respectful to you for what you have done for them. They become really demanding and they feel really entitled and they are all too often bottomless pits.

There is no end to their demands. There is no point at which they naturally feel satisfied and stop harassing you for more slave labor and kindness because you were stupidly kind to them at one time.

It's in part because I've had so many negative experiences with doing volunteer work or simply trying to be kind to people I happened to know that I decided to try to go into community development work as a career. I would like to make the world a better place, but I'm really thoroughly sick of the world treating me abusively for wanting to see things get better and being willing to roll up my sleeves and do something about it.

When people pay you for specific goods or services, they seem less likely to get these bizarre ideas that you are now requireed to give endlessly while they heap abuse upon you. Even when that does happen, you are at least getting paid. You aren't doing all that while getting literally NOTHING in return.

Making the world a better place is really hard. Being kind to people who have been treated terribly tends to get big emotional reactions out of people and this often goes weird places.

Having had significant personal problems myself, I've occasionally been on the other side of that equation, so I have firsthand experience with having a big emotional reaction to someone being kind to me while the rest of the world is awful to me. But I've also made a concerted effort to not have that turn into me being an abusive monster to someone who was kind to me.

Many people make no such effort. In some cases, no amount of telling them "I did that one thing for you. I don't want to do more for you. Go away and leave me alone already." seems to ever sink in and you can end up wishing they would drop dead already.

And then this can leave you wondering if you really want to make the world a better place if the world is going to be this shitty to you for doing a good thing for someone. So if you really want to make your community better and not end up just hating people in it for how they have treated you in response to doing a good thing, you need to think about how you will set boundaries and signal to people "I just do X. That's all I do."

Trying to signal that effectively will likely require you to figure out how to also signal some additional things, probably preferably implicitly, not explicitly. That might be something along the lines of: "No, you can't demand that X happen more than once a week or include all this other stuff that you would like to see. Feel free to create that other stuff yourself or I might be willing to do some of that for a fee. But me doing X for free does not mean I will also do a dozen other things for free that you would like to demand of me."

If you are willing to do more for pay, think about what more you would be willing to do, how much you want it to pay and so forth. Treat it like a real business.

I have been burned with trying to mix volunteer work with paid work for the same non-profit organization. They basically turned a blind eye to the fact that I really needed more income and wasn't some kind of wealthy retiree and they pressured me to do more and more on a volunteer basis -- because I was actually getting things done, unlike a paid employee in town who was theoretically being paid to do what I was doing for free but didn't seem to be performing -- until I eventually quit.

Most of the folks involved in the scenario probably weren't trying to be horrible people, but the end result was really negative for me. I don't like fighting with people and it was sort of a slippery slope thing and this is really common for ugly problems.

Ugly problems tend to not develop overnight. Instead, they brew and one thing leads to another.

They also often contain an element of "innocent misunderstanding" that makes it tricky to solve. You may end up not wanting to hurt the feelings of the people who screwed you over and even if you are thick skinned, hurting their feelings may amount to burning bridges even though they were in the wrong.

Even if there is clear and undeniable malice aforethought on the part of one or more individuals, it can take a while to determine that someone is intentionally screwing you over completely on purpose and, no, this was not some misunderstanding. And you may never be able to prove it.

So if you don't want to find yourself feeling backed into a corner and deciding "To hell with these jerks. I want nothing to do with them ever again." you need to think about where your boundaries sit and how to effectively enforce them ahead of time.

You cannot count on people "doing the right thing" or "being decent" or "being reasonable."

There are plenty of indecent and unreasonable people in the world. Such people tend to be extremely talented at telling themselves they haven't actually done anything wrong or there is some justifiction for intentionally crapping all over you with malice aforethought.

Even if they are both decent and reasonable, there can be genuine misunderstandings and differences in expectations. If they aren't simply morally bankrupt with zero hope of ever becoming decent people, it can be enormously helpful to know something about how to negotiate.

The following two books were the main texts for a college class I took in Negotiation and Conflict Management. They are both research based.

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