On Being a Dream-Catcher

By Susan J. Ellis

Energize is very excited about the Ivan Scheier’s book, Making Dreams Come True without Money, Might or Miracles. You can learn more about the book in our online bookstore, but its release has evoked a reflective response in me that I’ve decided to explore as this month’s Hot Topic.

On the surface, Ivan’s book may not seem directly connected to volunteer management. Indeed, this is a book that I feel has the potential for a much wider audience, including volunteers themselves. Ivan considers dreams: why they so often die and why a few live and prosper. He further examines how anyone can be both a dreamer or a “Dream-Catcher”--a person who nurtures the dream-chaser towards accomplishing the dream. In the book, he gives “rules” for both dreamers and Dream-Catchers, and offers a blueprint for how to support rather than kill off the vision.

Those of you who have met Ivan in person and who have participated in one of his many Challenge Think Tanks will immediately recognize this terminology. But many of you do not know Ivan except through his books and his new online Archive at http://www.regis.edu/spsmnm/dovia/ivan. All this about dreams may sound very “New Age” and mystical. And when you learn that Ivan is going to be 75, lives in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, and these days is a Reiki practitioner, you’ll really wonder whether Energize is off on a cloud somewhere!

The Essence of Volunteerism is Dreams
As we prepare to start 2001 as The International Year of Volunteers, I can’t think of a better time to reaffirm that the very essence of volunteerism is, in fact, dreams. Consider:

  • Volunteering is inherently an optimistic activity. No one volunteers for a cause they assume is hopeless. So the very act of participation implies a dream: this problem can be solved, this cause can succeed, this effort can make a difference.
  • Volunteers have always been--and continue to be--on the cutting edge. They recognize issues and the need for change before anyone else does. Often they have to drag the Establishment kicking and screaming into a new way of doing things. If it hasn’t been done before, someone has to imagine it first. The citizen volunteers who founded every organization and institution in most cultures were profound dreamers. Martin Luther King said, “Keep your eyes on the prize.” That’s exactly what volunteers do.
  • When work is also one’s livelihood, the job becomes an end unto itself. Yes, it is possible for someone to be very dedicated to a job and to be lucky enough to get paid for working toward a worthwhile social goal. But there’s a lot of interference: pay and benefits, career ladders, overwork and fatigue. Volunteers, on the other hand, escape what Ivan would call such “anchors.” As an activity of choice, unconnected to earning a living, volunteering frees the doer to focus on what she or he wants to do, even if there isn’t any money with which to do it. Dream-chasing is limited only by imagination and energy.

In our efforts to professionalize volunteer management, to calculate the worth of volunteer services in the gross national product, to develop policies and minimize risk, it is easy to miss the forest for the trees. We must never become so focused on the nuts-and-bolts of effective “management” of volunteers--doing things the paid staff wants them to do--that we forget our role as facilitators of what volunteers want to do.

Here are three examples of how we can all be Dream-Catchers:

1. Welcome mavericks.

In general, very few organizations (including most volunteer centers and even all-volunteer associations) are comfortable with people who march to the beat of a different drummer. How do we react if someone enthusiastically proposes a new idea for how to deliver service or even for what service to deliver? Are we willing to experiment or do we dismiss the different vision as naive, uninformed, or amateur? We ought to make the volunteer program the place that new ideas can be tested.

2. Foster “social entrepreneurship.”

The traditional model is for the organization to define a need or problem, decide how it will be handled, and recruit employees and volunteers to fill predetermined job descriptions. Maybe we can allow creative thinking to thrive. For example, why not recruit volunteers who are concerned about the need or problem and challenge them to “find ways to do something about this”?

3. Give permission to dream.

The volunteer program can dedicate itself to foster dreaming. On a regular basis, hold think tanks or at least “idea discussions” on questions such as:

  • If we were to start from scratch, what would you do differently?
  • In an ideal world, what would you like to see happen?
  • What idea has no one ever tried that you think might work?
  • If you were given an unrestricted grant of $10,000 (or whatever amount you wish ), what would you spend it on?


Don’t just involve volunteers in these sessions. Paid staff rarely are permitted to dream and there is no reason why the volunteer office can’t be the one place they are welcome to do so. And how about involving clients in speaking for themselves about what they’d like? One model of volunteering is self-help. Perhaps instead of always recruiting outside volunteers, maybe we can engage recipients of service in helping each other or at least in steering the organization toward greater impact.

How do YOU think leaders of volunteers can enable dreaming?

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