by Emma Margraf and Adam Fletcher
Here's where the conversation between continues; we have no end goal here and no agenda. We're writing this because sometimes the conversation is what matters. So take what you will, and feel free to post comments with suggested topics of discussion. What are you talking about?
Hi Adam. I hope your work in Alberta is treating you well. Life’s the same in Olympia as it was last week, and after a gigantic event on Saturday I’m back in my messy office mulling over some ideas, next steps, and the like.
So here's what I have been thinking about: I have been thinking I’m missing something. There is some critical piece of this that I’m not bringing up, seeing clearly, or putting the spotlight on. We’ve been writing and talking about the motivations for volunteerism, the pitfalls, etc. And the feedback we’ve gotten has been largely this question: why is what I’m doing now not enough?
This has been bugging me. When I need to think something through I either go for long walks or go to a Zumba class, a kind of hyper-dance-aeroebics that for me is led by two of the best teachers I’ve ever seen teach anything. Erin, full of energy, leaps in the air to signify a switch from left foot to right. This is what I’d like to learn from her: she jumps in the air and people follow. She spins, jumps, and bounds through class in a way that makes folks who’ve been fighting weight and inactivity for their entire lives work harder than they ever have, and it works. They come into class unhealthy and often quite depressed, and leave fit and happy.
The other teacher’s name is Rhoa, she’s a drop-dead georgous Lebanese immigrant by way of Canada who started Zumba to fight depression as a young mother, and looks at every class participant as if they are the most beautiful, inspiring, awesome person she’s ever met. She’s a beautiful dancer, but beautiful in a way that feels accessible. People leave class saying to themselves: maybe if I become fit and happy, I’ll be beautiful too.
Rhoa had a fit after she went to see “Eat, Pray, Love” and wrote this on her facebook page: Just saw Eat, Love and Pray-about a woman who tried to find hapiness and her 'truth' by travelling around the world in search of something to believe in. Why we struggle to go faraway places to find life/light outside ourselves when the Truth we are seeking is already within us? Your daily life is your temple and your religion. ~Believe in Yourself~
It was during one of Rhoa’s songs- a sweeping dance that mixes salsa and hip-hop- that it occurred to me. Of course they’re wondering why what they’re doing is not enough. Like with everything else, what they’re really worried about is that we think they are not enough. And why would anyone want to dive head first into solving a problem that seems so impossible to fix that they’d only feel inadequate for trying in the first place?
That’s when I realized that getting this message across might be the most important part of course you are enough. Of course you are good enough. Of course you have incredible value. I believe that when matched with the right volunteer work, you can move mountains. I believe that about everyone, and have been proven right on that too many times to count.
It’s not volunteers I am saying aren’t good enough. It’s not the people that I’d like to be different. It’s systems that perpetuate poverty that are letting us down, it’s the status quo that is inadequate. It’s up to us to make sure that volunteers have what they need.
That’s part of what I look to you for, Mr. Motivational Speaker: how do I talk people into believing that?
Adam: Emma, my dad is a sage guy, and in his seemingly infinite wisdom, he’s said, “Bud, if you always do the same things that you’ve always done, you’re always going to get what you’ve always got.” I think the reason why we’re having this conversation is that we intuitively recognize that what we’ve always got hasn’t been particularly effective: Our communities are still inundated with poverty and schools are rife with dropouts; children are more obese than ever and it seems like more than ever, people are apparently apathetic about the situation we’re in as a society. Couple the saying my dad shared with the cliche definition of insanity, “doing the same things over and over and expecting different results,” and it becomes completely obvious that we have to everything different than we have been.
One of the principles of systems thinking is “Start anywhere, go everywhere.” This dialogue has given you and I the opportunity to start in our own little corners of the world and spread our thinking around. My work focuses on changing the whole world Emma, and the way that I break that down into navigable chunks is to think about changing the culture of society and changing the structure of society. Cultural change includes everything we’ve discussed so far, and gets to your point above. Maybe we should discuss the structural changes that need to happen?
Emma: Ok, but I’m not going to stand up in front of volunteers and ask them to make structural changes to the world, that’s too obtuse. We all need a little more direction than that. At a recent staff retreat we did this team building excersise where I was blindfolded and turned around and someone else was supposed to be directing me toward knocking a hockey puck into a goal. That person kept yelling at me to protect the goal - but being blindfolded and turned around, I didn’t even know which direction the goal was or how I could possibly get there.
Some people in the service field believe that volunteers need to improve themselves, change themselves, become better people in order to make change. I don’t think that is true or even fair. And how is that motivating? There’s also an inherent problem in asking people to give of themselves and then telling them it’s not good enough. Let’s walk the line carefully, and give people a clear picture of what they are capable of.
Adam: And here’s where we have to agree to disagree, because I think all organizations that engage volunteers have an obligation to engage them in critical self-examination, particularly about the service they are seeking to embark in. The reason why I suggested structural change is because it can be less threatening to encourage volunteers to look at change the policies, programs, and activities within a community, rather than to look at themselves. However, you remind me that even that structural work, done absent critical reflection, is devoid of the type of solidarity I’m suggesting organizations seek to engender among volunteers and service recipients.
I first felt the impact of noblesse oblige in my own community growing up as a teenager in a low-income neighborhood in the Midwest. It was one particular summer when groups of volunteers repeatedly showed up at our community center to do projects, excluding me and my friends from helping out when we asked to, that I realized they were serving themselves more than us: by painting, leading games, cooking food, and doing work in our lives they were trying to feel better about themselves. From that place, and then three years of AmeriCorps and 13 years of a nonprofit career that I devised a model to illustrate motivations for service in 2001. Since then, I have worked with thousands of people to help them identify if they are motivated by pity, sympathy, empathy, or solidarity in order to serve others.
It was that model that showed me that we must encourage volunteers to actively seek to change their perceptions about service and volunteerism (and thus, their attitudes and their lives). Doing anything less actually puts many organizations in the position of perpetuating a type of hypocrisy that damns their best intentions. I think we can do better than that- and that we have to, for the sake of our society.
For me, that means a course of activity that might begin with a volunteer contacting an organization and saying, “I want to volunteer.” Immediately, the organization provides the volunteer with a brochure or a web address that asks five critical questions about volunteering for them, to the effect of, “Why do you want to volunteer?” “Who do you think benefits by you volunteering with our organization?” “What difference do you think volunteerism makes in your life,” and so forth, sussing out the motivations for volunteerism.
After that the organization would train each individual volunteer according to their motivation: The person who comes from a place of pity or sympathy would embark on a course of activities that would help them identify how they can relate to and engage with service recipients in a more empathetic way; the person who comes from empathy would be driven towards solidarity. In this way we can take volunteerism away from the rut it is in.
Long ago I was a bartender in one of those Seattle establishments where everyone is smarter than they look prides themselves on bad service. We spent many nights ignoring customers and discussing the state of the world (yes, the place is no longer in business). One of my favorite people there was moving away, and the last thing he said to me at the end of his goodbye party was this: goodbye Emma Lou, the strangest combination of idealism and nihilism is within you.
I believe in people, and can’t bring myself to believe in systems. I believe that I can look people in the eye and say, you are not in the wrong place, let’s find the right one. I believe that there is a place, for everyone, where their motivations can be identified and their skills can be used.
The biggest complaint I get about volunteer managers is this: “they know we don’t have to be here, right?” Whenever you say something a person’s contribution is not enough or inadequate -- that’s when they stop listening. But if you start by saying, hey you walked in the door today and that’s awesome, let’s talk about what we’re going to next, together, than they’re yours.
So, step 1: recognition that the desire to help your community is valuable. Step 2.: partner up and engage. Step 3: plan an attack on structural deficiencies, start with ....
Adam: But I’m afraid that you’re reducing my proposal to foster critical thinking about volunteerism to simply telling people that what they’re doing is not enough or inadequate. That’s not what I’m looking for. Instead, I’m asking that we engage volunteers in identifying their assumptions, examining their beliefs, and supporting their personal development before, during, and after their service. Instead of right and wrong, I’m suggesting we help shepherd individuals towards a grey space that is neither: Volunteering is about everyone benefiting. While that may murky the waters a lot of people wade through in order to volunteer, it doesn’t exclude anyone; rather, it builds their personal capacity to be successful. Surely that can’t be wrong - can it?
Emma: I think my point is not that I am doing that, but that that is what they hear when we start with the negative at the get go. And we don’t want anyone thinking are not enough right off the bat. Can we all agree on a process for this? It’s a journey. Murky waters are hard to navigate in your free time. But you can follow a path that is set for you. Recognize, engage, converse. Right?
The Volunteer Manager (VM) is the leader for this process. Someone knocks on their door and says hey, I’d like to volunteer, and the VM says THAT’S AWESOME. Then they hand them something akin to the set of questions you wrote about above: what are you interested in? What are your skills? How would you like to apply this? What do you know about our mission, or issue, or agenda?
Now the Volunteer and the Volunteer Manager are partners on this trip toward solutions. Arm in arm we begin a conversation. In order to make that conversation the most productive, we’ll need to discuss some other structural changes. What do you think those should be?
Adam: Before I break that down, I want to suggest that we reframe an important part: the practice of critical thinking is not about being negative, per se; it’s about being consciously alert to the assumptions, implications, and impact of our actions. That doesn’t need to be negative - it needs to be alert. There is a difference.
With critical thinking as a cornerstone of an organization’s efforts to re-envision volunteerism, it is fair to start by asking individual volunteers questions about their service. However, I would suggest that structural change should begin a little deeper with VMs critically thinking about their own personal assumptions about volunteering, service, and social change. From there they have the personal footing to engage volunteers in a similar critical examination. These are the cultural roots of structural change. By instituting routine question-asking by volunteers, VMs begin structural change efforts; from there they can provide training that continues to develop individual volunteers’ perspectives while simultaneously building the capacity of their organization. Developing mechanisms to support non-vertical relationship-building between volunteers and service recipients can be an important step; this can happen through structured dialogues or potlucks. Opening up appropriate avenues for service recipients and volunteers to serve together can be a powerful, too. At the same time, organizations can institutionalize meaningful volunteerism by instituting policies and procedures that reflect the value they place.
There are deliberate steps we can take that develop culture and structure at the same time, and just because they are challenging doesn’t mean we should not do them.
This seems like a good spot to close out for the moment, and recommend some reading. Let’s have a reading group!
- “The Case Against Corporate Responsibility,” by Aneel Karnani in the Wall Street Journal.
- “To Hell With Good Intentions,” a speech by Ivan Illich at the 1968 Conference on InterAmerican Student Projects.
- “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” by Dr. Martin Luther King http://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html
- “Purpose, Empowerment, and the Experience of Volunteerism in the Community,” by Adam Fletcher on The Freechild Project website.