Volunteers and the Dead Horse Theory

dead horse theory

The “Dead Horse Theory” is a well-known business concept that explains the tendency of individuals and organizations to persist in ineffective strategies, even when they are not achieving the desired results.

The theory goes something like this:

When you discover that you are riding a dead horse, the best strategy is to dismount.

However, in business and government (and social impact organizations!), a whole range of more “advanced” tactics are often employed, including:

  • Buying a bigger whip;
  • Changing riders;
  • Appointing a committee to study the horse;
  • Lowering standards to include dead horses;
  • Providing additional training to improve the horse’s performance;
  • Etc.

In other words, the dead horse represents a unproductive strategy that someone is trying to improve with tactical changes. Something I think we’ve all seen in the volunteer engagement space!

“It’s always worked before!” is a cry I often hear.

I hear it especially in volunteer recruitment. Organizations are struggling to find volunteers, but the traditional methods that have “always worked before” are becoming less and less effective. Instead of coming up with a new strategy, though, the organization doubles down on the old way of doing things. “If posting in 5 places doesn’t bring in enough volunteers, we’ll post in 50!”

It’s not just with volunteer programs, either. The Dead Horse Theory can be seen in fundraising strategies that aren’t effective, operational programs that aren’t meeting the needs of the community, or organizational structures that are not allowing for maximum impact.

But why does it happen?

One of the reasons why volunteer engagement leaders may persist in outdated strategies is a fear of change. Change can be hard, and many organizations are hesitant to allow significant changes to previously successful strategies or operations. This fear can lead to a situation where the program is stuck in a rut and unable to make progress towards achieving its mission.

Another reason may be a lack of resources. Social impact organizations, and volunteer programs especially, often operate with limited budgets and resources. This can make it difficult to test out new strategies or to make significant changes to their operations. In some cases, a volunteer program may be stuck with inadequate strategies simply because they do not have the resources to try something new.

The most common reason, though, is a lack of understanding by senior leadership.

Volunteer programs are rarely top-of-mind for board members or executive directors. Because of this, they often see only the surface of the program. The what rather than the why. If leadership is focused on “what”, it can be easy to think that a bit more effort with the current strategy will fix things. Until they have an understanding of why something isn’t working, it can be extremely difficult to get the go-ahead to make radical changes to the underlying strategy.

How do you avoid the Dead Horse Theory?

It is important for organizations to be willing to make changes and try new strategies. For all leaders, senior and otherwise, to have an in-depth understanding of why a strategy works or doesn’t work. This can involve taking a step back and re-evaluating the organization’s mission and goals, as well as engaging in regular evaluations to ensure that programs and strategies are still meeting the needs that they were created for. It is also important for leaders to be open to feedback from volunteers and community members, and to use this feedback to make improvements and changes to their programs and strategies.

Another way to avoid the Dead Horse Theory is to prioritize innovation and creativity within the organization. This can involve encouraging staff members to think outside the box and to come up with new and innovative ideas for programs and strategies. Regularly question the status quo. “We’ve always done it this way” is a shortcut to obsolescence.

Social impact organizations can also prioritize collaboration and partnerships with other organizations in the community, which can help to bring new perspectives and ideas to the organization.

Avoiding the Dead Horse Theory, though, isn’t all.

Volunteer engagement programs can also use this concept to improve their operations. By recognizing when a strategy is not working, leaders can take steps to make changes and improve impact. Be warned, though; this involves being willing to make difficult decisions, such as ending long-standing programs that are losing their effectiveness and reallocating those resources to more impactful strategies.

The Dead Horse Theory is an important concept to understand and address.

Once leaders are able to recognize when they are persisting in ineffective strategies and take steps to make changes, volunteer programs – and social impact organizations as  a whole – can better achieve their missions and have a greater impact in their communities.

It requires a willingness to embrace change and prioritize innovation and creativity.

You know, I think you’ve got this!

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