So, What Do You Do?

By Susan J. Ellis

I hope everyone had a lovely holiday season and feels positive about 2008.  Did you attend any parties in the past few weeks?  Did any conversations include the question, “so, what do you do?” How did you answer?

If we say “I am a volunteer resources manager” or “I run a volunteer program,” what exactly does this communicate to the average listener?  How do we feel (honestly) when we state our profession to strangers?  Do we expect our identity to be valued or treated as interesting, or do we dread watching people’s eyes glaze over?  

While social party chatter may not seem too important, it can reveal some significant things.  First, it gives us an opportunity to listen to ourselves outside of the usual settings in which we talk about our work.  It tells us how confident or proud we feel about ourselves and what we do for so many hours of our lives.  It provides perspective on what the public – and therefore what prospective new volunteers – think or expect when we introduce ourselves during outreach efforts.  As we gain these insights, we also might consider what this tells us about how the executives and staff of our organizations view our role.

In 1998, Sarah Jane Rehnborg wrote a still-relevant guest Hot Topic, The Limits of the "V" Word, in which she declared:  “We are selling ourselves short by not clarifying our language and by lumping all manners and forms of service within one broad and reasonably useless classification of volunteer."   The debate over the vocabulary of volunteering has only deepened it the last decade.  But I want to expand the issue to how we “sell ourselves short” whenever we identify ourselves by our titles and not our purpose.

Let’s Play with Words

Periodically I do a workshop exercise in which I challenge participants to tell me “what is your role – your purpose – in your organization?”   Initially, people respond with a list of volunteer management tasks and activities.  I yawn.  These tasks, which must be done well, are the strategies and tactics for accomplishing our purpose, but they have little meaning without a vision of our work.  So, what do we do?

I’ve been playing with different ways to express our work – to find ways to startle, surprise, and educate those who don’t really understand.  The process is fun and revealing. 

Try reading the following statements out loud and consider whether you identify with them.  (And you know that, at the end of this essay, I’m going to ask you to add your own!)

  • I provide people with the opportunity to make a difference to a cause they care deeply about.
  • I tap the community for non-cash resources.
  • I create a conduit to allow concerned citizens to donate their talents and skills to our important cause.
  • I friend-raise.
  • I build a bridge between the resources of the community and the needs of my organization.
  • I look for the potential of people to give of themselves.
  • I foster revolution by channeling people’s concerns about our cause or clients’ needs.
  • I challenge people to put their bodies where their beliefs are.
  • I give people a way to improve their mental and physical health while helping others.
  • I transform powerlessness in the face of world problems into empowerment to make a real difference in our specific situation.
  • I gather individuals into collective clout on behalf of our cause.
  • I allow people to rise to the level of their abilities, not the restrictions of their resumes.
  • I invite people to give away their skills in return for satisfaction.
  • I create a community of caring.
  • I open the door for any concerned person to participate productively in our institution.
  • I deal in the best of human nature.
  • I make sure people enjoy working hard for no money!
  • I manage a priceless work force.
  • I manage a workforce that is limited only by my imagination as to whom to approach for help.
  • I stretch the budget of our organization by engaging skilled people beyond what we could otherwise afford.
  • I defy daily the widely-held stereotype that people are selfish and uncaring.
  • I find buried human treasure.

Just like the two workers chiseling marble, one saying “I hammer stone” and the other “I am helping to build a cathedral,” it’s all in the attitude.  And, if we express our work with a consistent vision, it will have a ripple effect.  We’ll feel proud, volunteers will feel fulfilled, our organizations will recognize the value of our role, and we can indeed change the world.  How’s that for a new year’s wish?

So, what do you do?

Spend a few fun moments and brainstorm a creative description of your role.  Be as specific as you like. And, don’t worry about perfection. Remember, you may just perfectly describe the role of another Hot Topic reader!

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