Chapter 7 Overtrust

While pondering the idea of having to protect oneself in a sporting organization, a seemingly absurd thought in itself, an incident happened recently that is worth illustrating to provide a nice segue into a slight topic change for the blog: OLA volunteers. After all, when there are disputes and disagreements in the OLA, they are often between two or more volunteers, or groups of volunteers as represented by a club or league.  Without volunteers the OLA would function much differently, if at all, however there is this blind reverence for ‘the volunteer’ which may not be a healthy perspective in the long run.  Nevertheless this incident reminded me that assuming someone has an authoritative insight can be dangerous…

Many times over the years I have heard people refer to others as “the OLA.” This might be a useful figure of speech, but can often become unproductive when taken too literally.

The OLA is an association of lacrosse clubs organized around a not-for-profit corporation; the people running it, the Boards and Directors, etc. are just that and not much more. They don’t own the OLA any more than you do.  The OLA can also be seen as a long standing set of traditions often maintained because ‘that’s the way it has always been.’  Don’t get me wrong, traditions can be good and should certainly be respected.  However, tradition-for-tradition sake, that point in time where the tradition exists and no one knows why, or we have to do this wrong thing because it’s tradition… is often not very good in the long run and usually results in disputes.  This brings me to an interesting concept called ‘past practice.’

While a public organization is beholden to the laws, bylaws, policies, etc., there are often unwritten rules in play, most often referring to how things are done based on what was done previously.  This is past practice and should not be confused with tradition.  Tradition generally refers to past cultural customs and practices.  Past practice is part of the overall administrative framework that is used to run an organization and may include procedures that, since they have always been done that way, are the preferred way of doing them.  How to run a registration table, the procedure to procure space for a meeting, that sort of thing.

Past practice is a reasonable thing and happens all the time, generally to the benefit of members. It is also one of the things considered when assessing whether something was procedurally fair or not.  If you have consistently experienced a practice (such as the timeframe in which registration forms are signed) with the OLA, or any other public organization, you have a legitimate expectation of it occurring again.  The problem with past practice, like tradition, is when it loses it raison d’etre and becomes inflexibly bureaucratic.

What makes things worse is when past practice is used as an excuse to make rote decisions without thinking about possible negative outcomes because, well, times change. Often someone will simply parrot what they have heard or been told by persons in position in authority in the OLA.  While this sort of thing is often routine in the daily comings and goings of a local sports club, it can result in quite a few serious misunderstandings in the OLA.  It can also be used as an excuse to harm others.

One of the most difficult obstacles to overcome when trying to resolve such disputes is the idea that at any moment, an OLA administrator can cite past practice to justify any action counteracting any claim being made. Combined with the administrator’s ability to make discretionary decisions, such actions may not be resolved in the normal appeal process as offered by the OLA, especially when the administrator has little to no training in disciplinary procedures or, worse, is of the unscrupulous type.  Therefore it is very important, especially in a disciplinary situation, that the source and authenticity of information is questioned and verified.  Even if past practice has been cited as a reason it still must be proven to have been an actual practice and not something the administrator is making up on the spot in order to give the appearance of authority.  Critical thinking is a good skill to have.

I recently heard a person explain to a club membership that the club did not really have a constitution, but instead, the OLA’s constitution was considered their club’s constitution. When questioned, this person went on to explain that the club’s bylaws were like a set of policies and rules. It was a baffling statement to hear.

The problem with this exchange of information was that the person in question is connected with the OLA, well-known and respected and, most importantly, trustworthy. To many of the newer parents and inexperienced board members in attendance this person was the authority on the matter, “the OLA” as it were.  Most of the people coming away from that meeting likely believe that the OLA determines the club’s constitution and that club bylaws are merely policies and rules.

Why would a well-respected and trustworthy person connected with the OLA make such an obviously incorrect statement that could potentially bring negative and costly legal repercussions to a local minor club? Did this person simply misspeak about the subject, or did they truly believe what they were saying was true?  And if they truly believed it, where did that misinformation originally come from?

Sadly, this is not the first time I have seen this phenomenon happen within the OLA. There is even a word for it: overtrust.  (Some of the synonyms for overtrust include naïve, gullible, dupable, and unsophisticated.) There is absolutely no disrespect to another person by discreetly researching their claims, especially when such claims could result in negative outcomes.  In fact, there is a term for this as well, and something every club volunteer should be familiar with: due diligence.

To clarify: at the time of membership the club incorporated as a ‘corporation without share capital’ (not for profit corporation) which was an OLA requirement.  Having obtained the Letters Patent and Bylaws, which formed the constitution, the club fulfilled the new association application guidelines and were accepted as a (voluntary) member of the OLA with membership renewed each year through application and fees.  Furthermore, the club’s bylaws and policies are distinct instruments of governance: Governing Documents: Separating Constitution, Bylaws, Policies, and Rules.  Finally, there is nowhere in the OLA Constitution, Bylaws, Rules and Regulations or Membership policy that states a club’s constitution and bylaws are replaced by that of the OLA.

What often happens in sports organizations, whether provincial associations, leagues or clubs, is that information gets misconstrued then repeated and this misinformation gets passed down and repeated long enough that it merely represents a rote practice. When you challenge someone on their sources, more than likely their default reasoning will be that it has always been this way or that’s what they heard.  (I suspect this was the case with my example above because I highly doubt this person would deliberately pass along information that could put a local club into harm’s way.) Bottom line: an organization’s bylaws should not be treated like a rumour.

Along with overtrust, another helpful thing to avoid is giving someone authority over interpretation and definition based on the mere fact that they have been elected or appointed to a board position, either currently or in the past. Certainly years of experience can help situations that require interpretation and definition, but the fact of being in a subject decision making position doesn’t necessary confer subject expertise.  Not all treasurers are accountants for example. The other side of this coin, which will be the subject of the next post, is that placing this much level of trust on a volunteer often results in unrealistic expectations and ends in dispute.  Despite the complexities of trying to gain consensus on any issue, it is always better for all to aim for a situation of mutual agreement rather than ‘my way or the highway because I said so.’

Next: Chapter 8 The Volunteer