Sometimes I think our profession is a little prone to tunnel vision. We’re often so busy trying to accomplish so much on our own with so little support that our view becomes limited, our horizon becomes small and cramped. When I get a call or an email expressing interest in our volunteer opportunities, I have to admit that my first thought is not usually “What big amazing awesome audacious mind-blowing role can I assign this person to?” More often I’m thinking “What’s tried and true? What’s manageable? What will require the least work? What’s safe? What’s the path of least resistance?” The Big Idea of Volunteerism too often gets lost beneath the more immediate concerns of sheer survival and self-preservation.
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about Volunteerism with a capital V, the kind of volunteerism that empowers ordinary citizens to roll up their sleeves and embrace uncertainty, challenge, and risk in order to really Change the World. This kind of volunteerism rocks the very foundations of our society by meeting unmet needs, filling gaps, righting wrongs, leveling the playing field, advocating for the vulnerable, and promoting genuine justice. I’ve been wondering how I can climb out from underneath the stacks of papers and files and spreadsheets that surround my desk and make my way back to those radical roots, how I can recapture the pure exhilaration that lies at the heart of what we do.
Maybe our well-intentioned efforts to impose structure and consistency and parameters and boundaries and risk management have domesticated volunteerism to the point where it’s too compliant and watered down to do any real good.
And then I think of James.
James (not his real name) is a client of ours. His background includes chronic homelessness, chronic unemployment, and until very recently, chronic drug use. He also has a history of misdemeanor convictions stretching back decades. He was always one of those guys who just could not get his act together, despite his smarts and his personable nature. Every time it seemed like he might finally be turning things around, he’d come in mumbling and wearing his sunglasses and you’d know….
But this past January, James signed up for some classes at a local community college. It was a leap of faith that I thought required extraordinary courage given his age, given his lack of even basic fluency with a computer, given his history and his habits and his poor self-esteem, given the huge risk of failure. I don’t know what prompted him to do it but I admired the hell out of him for it and was ready to put every available resource at his disposal so he could succeed. So I found him a good tutor who spends about ninety minutes with him each week. She helps him keep his syllabus straight and keep on track with his assignments and navigate the online message board and conduct internet searches and prepare for quizzes and tests.
So far James has gotten all A’s and B’s.
According to The Independent Sector, this volunteer (with a small v) tutor provides VSH with $33.82 worth of service every week and she does it while remaining squarely within our approved training parameters. But as far as I am concerned, this Volunteer (with a capital V) is rocking James’ world because she is accompanying him on a radical path of recovery, reinvention, and redemption. She is engaging in profound, life-changing, audacious service that gives me chills every time I think of it.
The next time your phone rings or an email drops into your inbox inquiring about volunteer opportunities, resist the urge to think small and manageable. Look up and gaze out at that gorgeous horizon full of possibilities. What we hold in the palm of our hands is nothing less than the power to change the status quo, to change lives, to change the world, one beating heart at a time.
- A Path Appears by Nicholas Kristof & Sheryl WuDunn (http://apathappears.org/)
- “The Graying of Volunteers: We are Back for Your Revolution” by Tom McKee (http://articles.volunteerpower.com/2015/06/the-graying-of-volunteers-we-are-back-for-your-revolution/)
- “Challenging What’s Possible in Pro Bono Service” by Tracey Hoover (http://www.pointsoflight.org/blog/2015/05/29/challenging-what%E2%80%99s-possible-pro-bono-service)
- “Mixed Messages to Volunteers Whom We’ve Asked to be Friendly” by Susan J. Ellis (https://www.energizeinc.com/hot-topics/2015/june)
See you at the conference!
At Your Service,
Alison Jones-Nassar, GRAVA President