Volunteers Just Want to Have Fun

By Susan J. Ellis

Here is the Hot Topic superceded last month by the hurricanes — and now a welcome break for us all. 

One of the earliest issues of Ms. Magazine, back in the 1970s, had a memorable front cover. Drawn like a Roy Lichtenstein comic-strip painting, it featured a man telling a woman: “Do you know the women’s movement has no sense of humor?” She famously replies: “No, but if you hum a few bars, I’ll fake it.”

It is common to cast volunteering in a solemn, even spiritual light. Volunteers do serve those in need due to poverty, disease, war, or disaster, which naturally is incredibly serious business. But we do volunteers (and ourselves as leaders of volunteers) a disservice by focusing only on their halos and never the devilish twinkle in their eyes!

That’s why I was so tickled by the newest book we just announced in our online bookstore: A Toolkit for Volunteer Speed Matching. Earlier this month, Heather Allen of Volunteer Centre Dacorum (just outside London) e-mailed to tell me about their delightful idea to adapt the current fad of s peed dating to volunteer recruitment! Think “Bridget Jones vows to find the perfect volunteer opportunity”! How clever! And what was even better, the Centre immediately put their idea online and wrote this toolkit, which Energize is helping them to sell electronically. So anyone, anywhere can put this fun and upbeat recruiting idea into action.

Will volunteer speed matching be the technique of the future? Who knows? But does that matter? It’s of the moment and enjoyable, so why not grab it? In fact, we could do with more humor in our field.

I never did a day's work in my life. It was all fun.

-- Thomas A. Edison

Volunteering is, by definition, a leisure time activity. By this I mean that people can only engage in volunteering when they are not at a paying job, caring for family members, or fulfilling some other obligation. Our competition when we recruit is not paid employment; it’s whatever the person does in his or her increasingly rare free time. So the choice we’re asking people to make is whether to do volunteer work or play golf, see a movie, or just plain rest.

Years ago Ivan Scheier made the point that we may have made a mistake patterning volunteering on the work model (notice we even say “volunteer work”). Perhaps, he suggested, we ought to use the recreation model instead. Think about it. The recruiting pitch might be:

Have we got something great for you! You can enjoy being part of an organization that is making a difference, spend time with really nice people, feel good when you leave – and it doesn’t even cost admission!

Do people need more work in their lives, or more play? Should we be using guilt to persuade people they “ought” to serve others or rallying everyone around a mutual benefit opportunity?

The human race has one really effective weapon, and that is laughter. -- Mark Twain

Don’t make the mistake of interpreting these references to recreation, play, fun, or humor with a lack of concern about impact. I’m quite serious about that. But every once in a while we need a different perspective. Volunteers do not have to copy paid staff, they can find their unique way to contribute to the cause. In fact, we ought to be challenging volunteers to think outside the box, approach problems with a “what else can we do about this?” attitude, and experiment with options that may be unorthodox.

It's kind of fun to do the impossible . -- Walt Disney

Earning a living may mean having to grit your teeth and do some things you don’t like on a job. So if volunteering is not about money, shouldn’t it be a pleasure to do it? It’s possible to approach even the most sobering of situations with humor. Hospice folks will tell you that they laugh a great deal, even in the face of death – maybe because of it. We can consciously craft volunteer roles to relieve tension, provide a break in the day for staff and clients, or stimulate creative thinking. Staff doesn’t always have the time to do this but it could dramatically change the tone of many of our organizations to charge volunteers with this challenge.

Life does not cease to be funny when people die any more than it ceases to be serious when people laugh. -- George Bernard Shaw

Laughter gives us distance. It allows us to step back from an event, deal with it and then move on.

-- Bob Newhart

Laughter really is the best medicine. Look at the healing work of Dr. Patch Adams and his Gesundheit! Institute (www.patchadams.org ) as just one example. You can encourage mentors, tutors, and other one-to-one volunteers to incorporate fun into their “work” with clients. Read a funny book together and watch the student enjoy the learning more (let the teachers do the boring stuff!). Rent a silly movie to watch with that homebound senior or lonely child – bet it’s a lot easier to bond during time spent together giggling. Now think of how much easier it would be to recruit volunteers to spend a few hours smiling.

He deserves Paradise who makes his companions laugh . – The Koran

Laughter is the closest distance between two people . -- Victor Borge

At the National Conference on Volunteering and Community Service last month, we once again heard a line of speakers extolling the role of volunteers in dealing with “serious social problems.” For years this has made me uncomfortable for various reasons. Serious social problems (which I impertinently refer to as “SSPs”) are in the eye of the beholder, as are different ways of tackling such problems. Who am I to tell my fellow citizen that serving the hungry is of greater good than making sure the library stays open? Or that visiting a prison has more significance than ushering for the orchestra? Must we sanctify community involvement and perpetuate the stale concept of “charity” (we who have so much to give to those who have so little)?

What our communities need is elbow grease – group effort towards the common good, rallying together, finding like minded people and working shoulder to shoulder. Having fun while putting forth this effort is the reward along the way to the goal. So is making new friends, feeling satisfaction, improved physical health, and all the other perks of volunteering. We ought to revel in it. Volunteer speed matching? Bring it on!

To love what you do and feel that it matters – how could anything be more fun? -- Katharine Graham

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