Happy new year! As proof of how-time-flies, 2003 marks the seventh year of monthly Hot Topics on this Web site. For me, scrolling through the Archive is like watching my life flash before my eyes (at least, my professional life).
Last week, our Webmaster Kristin suggested that, given the controversy last month’s Hot Topic evoked, it might be time to say a few things about the Hot Topic itself. Kristin sees all site responses first and therefore learns directly what our visitors say. Based on her sense of all remarks, pro and con, she posed some great questions as a framework for my essay. I liked these so much that I decided to use a Q&A format. (Thank you, Kristin!)
Kristin: What is your goal with the Hot Topic?
Susan: There are very few places that provide a forum for discussion of issues in volunteerism. “Issues” are different from information, best practices, and other skills-training topics. According to the dictionary, among the various definitions of “issue” are:
- A point, matter, or question to be disputed or decided.
- A sending or giving out; putting forth.
We all know that volunteerism is far more complex than the average person suspects. How can we expect others to be knowledgeable about the philosophy, ethics, and fundamental principles of our field if we do not know them or agree about them ourselves?
So one purpose of the Hot Topic is to identify and surface issues. As a consultant and trainer with the privilege of serving international clients, I feel an obligation to share what I witness. Often I use the “percolation” theory: if the same topic is bubbling to the surface in, say, three to five or more different places, something is definitely brewing.
I am lucky enough to have many opportunities to publish my thoughts, whether in articles, books, or columns such as the one I’ve written for The NonProfit Times for twelve years. But the World Wide Web provides an outlet that is substantially different than the printed word: the chance for readers to respond immediately and publicly to what I say. This is a remarkable power and I have been thrilled to share it.
Why? Because I want to give volunteerism practitioners a dependable place in which to learn and debate. So the full statement of the “goal” of the Hot Topic is:
To identify and surface issues affecting volunteerism and to elicit the opinions of as many people as possible about them.
Ultimately, of course, I hope that the public record of the discussion influences decision makers (this is one reason we maintain the Archive of all past Hot Topics and all the responses received). So I’d like to have an impact on strengthening our field
Kristin: Why do you state a strong opinion rather than try to give a pro/con presentation on an issue?
Susan: Marilyn Mackenzie, a Canadian colleague, is fond of saying that our field is “terminally nice.” While some people love my willingness to state an opinion honestly, others see it as aggressive. Because I want to stimulate discussion, I provide my perspective as clearly as I can. No apologies. Actually, I think I do try to acknowledge gray areas or to give credit where credit is due. But, yes, I say what I feel.
The most important thing to remember is that the Hot Topic is designed to start discussion – right away, in public, on the Web site. I never take a stand just to stimulate controversy, but I do not shy away from controversy either. If people are irritated (or thrilled) by my opinion, but do not post their own in exchange, they are missing an opportunity to have an influence on everyone’s thinking.
In some ways, only an independent consulting firm could offer the Hot Topic feature. We are not political and have no one to protect or impress. I can’t tell you how often newspaper reporters say to me: “Thank you so much for being willing to be quoted. Everyone else refused to go public, although they felt strongly on the subject.”
Kristin: Do you like being challenged?
Susan: Yes, if the response is thoughtful and based in experience. I was very happy with the wide range of responses we generated last month about the relationship of Volunteer Centers to the United Way. I think that reading everything – both my essay and all the responses – would give someone a balanced range of viewpoints. More than anything, the debate demonstrated that the subject deserved to be discussed!
While I relish learning other perspectives, I’ll admit to not liking it when someone questions my motives or knowledge, responding with a broad personal attack. As I said online last month: Having a difference of opinion does not make either party ignorant. It is possible to have the same facts and draw different conclusions.
For the record, I take all the responses seriously and often adjust my opinion based on the cogent arguments someone makes to my original opinion. Or, I’ll at least mention the “other side” when I speak in public about that subject later.
Kristin: Is there something about the volunteer field that avoids conflict? Why do you try to stimulate it?
Susan: Contrary to common belief, I prefer being popular to unpopular! It’s just that I hate back-room whispering. We are actually a field with lots of disagreement, but we resist fighting openly. Internal to each organization we are battling administrator and paid staff attitudes about volunteers. In our communities we struggle for media attention, plead for consideration from school service-learning or court-ordered programs, and face colleague apathy about collaborative efforts, whether forming a DOVIA or jointly celebrating National Volunteer Week. On the national level, we complain about the services our professional associations do and don’t provide, and about how these associations relate (or don’t) to one another.
But apart from whining, despairing, or heated coffee shop discussions during conference breaks, when do we try to do something about our feelings? It is my hope that by bringing privately-shared opinions out into the open, we can strengthen our field.
Kristin: What "clout" do you and Energize have?
Susan: We are not in control of anything outside our own client services. But we have the power of influence, exactly because we are willing to voice our opinions to the world. This is a power that I freely share: Anyone who takes the risk to respond to a Hot Topic is given the opportunity to use that same clout.
Kristin: Can anyone suggest a Hot Topic? Write one as a guest author?
Susan: I warmly welcome ideas for Hot Topics from anyone. Keep in mind the criteria:
A challenging issue about some aspect of volunteer involvement that has various elements for discussion (not a standard volunteer management topic like “recruiting volunteers”).
So far we have had three guest authors and the door is open to others with the interest and ability to share their perspectives on an issue. E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org to explore the possibilities.
The discussion questions in response to this Hot Topic are:
Why have you or have you not responded to a Hot Topic in the past? If you took the risk, were there any results (good or bad)?
What are some "hot topics" you'd like addressed here? (For now, please limit your response to suggesting the issue. We'll save the "debate" for later.)
What other forums are available for airing issues in our field and do you use them?
How might professional associations stimulate more issue-based discussion and, ultimately, action?
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