The World According to Volunteer Experience

By Susan J. Ellis

Unbelievably, March 2002 marks 25 years since I founded Energize. It has been an incredible quarter century in countless ways and I feel privileged to have participated in the growth of the volunteer field. It has been inspiring and rewarding, if also at times frustrating and maddening. But it has never, ever been dull! And I look forward to what may lie around the next bend of this ongoing, curvy, up and down road.

Writing this monthly Hot Topic during the last six years has often been therapeutic, allowing me to vent indignation, tilt at windmills, and seek the comfort of shared minds among my colleagues. On this special milestone anniversary, however, I want to focus on the positives. As I reflect on my work in volunteerism, I realize that devotion to this field brings with it a world view that this is quite special, particularly within a culture so focused on economic gain. So I hereby offer a list of truisms that I believe are fundamental to success in volunteer leadership. The funny thing is that these same philosophies are totally applicable to just about anything. So maybe this is my version of "Everything I Needed to Know in Life, I Learned from Working with Volunteers."

  • If it's worth doing, it's worth doing even if there is no money to pay for it.
  • Progress is made when more people say "I can do something about that" than say "that's not my job" or "it's none of my business."
  • Volunteering brings out the best in people...and working with the best in people engenders optimism even in the face of pessimism.
  • We have the power to act on what we can dream, not just on what we think we can afford.
  • When we look for the essence of individuals instead of judging them by their formal credentials, we often find that being "qualified" to do something lies more in attitude than in experience.
  • When you are not "in" the box," it's easier to think "out" of it (which is why it is best to recruit volunteers who are as different from paid staff as possible).
  • Never forget to say thank you.
  • The best service occurs when the giver benefits as much as the recipient.
  • Every revolution begins with a step taken by one person and that person is always a volunteer. (No one is ever paid to rebel.)
  • Volunteers are the silver lining in the cloud of disaster.
  • While it is popular to praise the work of "quiet heroes," the most important social change has always been achieved by those who are loud and visible.
  • Volunteering is an equalizer. It finds the common denominator among otherwise diverse people and allows them to work together to meet goals that matter to them all.
  • Volunteering is a strategy applied in the same way by proponents of fundamentally opposed sides of an issue. So volunteers are not automatically right - they just believe they are.
  • Actions speak louder than words or checkbooks.
  • There is no skill so specialized that someone will not freely donate it - if you're flexible as to when you get access to it.
  • When it comes to sex, we understand that paying for it does not make it love, even if the technique is great. (So why do we think receiving money is always a sign of respect?)
  • When you feel powerless, doing something alongside others who care as you do puts you back in control.
  • When you don't have to meet external hiring requirements, people can rise to their level of competence regardless of age, background, supposed disability, or other difference.
  • The least competent people are the most threatened by offers of help or new ideas.
  • Everyone has exactly the same number of hours in a day. Be conscious of the value of the time some people share generously with you...and never waste it.
  • Value mavericks and dreamers. They may sometimes be irritants, but often plant the seeds of change.
  • The only things necessary to accomplish a goal are: confidence, determination, time, effort and the participation of a growing number of advocates. Money is nice, but it can't substitute for the other ingredients.
  • We are limited only by our imagination and our unwillingness to ask for help. When we ask, we get. Often in amazing abundance.

What have you learned from your time working with volunteers? I look forward to seeing what credos all of you will add!

Thank you for your collegial wisdom and enthusiasm over the last 25 years.

Here's to the future....

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