Appendix to July 1998 Hot Topic

Comments from Susan Ellis at IAVE

Submitted at the beginning of the Conference

I'm here at the IAVE World Volunteer Conference in Edmonton. There are 2700 delegates from 83 countries -- over 1400 from outside North America! The opening speakers noted that this is probably the largest single gathering on the subject of volunteerism ever, anywhere on the planet!

My only disappointment is that the on-site Internet connection is not available. There is free e-mail which I am encouraging people to use to post their comments. Here are my thoughts from the conference:

1. This event is different from the conferences on "volunteer management" in that many of the delegates are here AS volunteers--they proudly identify themselves as primarily volunteers and do not think of themselves as "volunteer managers." I ran a workshop yesterday about this, titled "Words Apart or Worlds Apart," and found that we had tension in the room. While it is exciting to me to see a "mixed" audience, the volunteers are unsure of the "paid" folks--and vice versa! Even after we explained that every coordinator of volunteers here is also a volunteer, communication is hard. On the other hand, once we get down to the discussion of mutual issues, we discover our similarities.

2. Yesterday I also participated on a panel on the subject of "Who's a Volunteer?"--four of us (USA, Canada, the Netherlands, and Korea) spoke about the evolving definition in our own countries and then we had a dialogue with conferees. It turns out that everyone was grappling with the same issues: how to distinguish between volunteering and the "voluntary sector"; what to do when politicians and funders misunderstand the role of volunteers; how "mandated volunteering" fits into the picture (if it does); how to deal with the stereotype of volunteering as "nice" women's work (yes, this seems to be universal); etc.

3. The opening keynote speaker, Ruben Nelson, was just wonderful. He made a number of very perceptive and provocative points. One of his themes was that volunteering is a spectrum--from what we usually call volunteer work on one side to what he calls "a volunteering life" on the other. This is another perspective on the discussion of "civil society." He challenged us to consider how cultures of the world can stimulate in their citizens a natural, second-nature attitude of helpfulness: picking up trash, tutoring a neighbor's child, and other actions of everyday life that would make for better communities. He also spoke about globalization. It has been 12 years since any NEW group of humans was discovered on the planet. In 1900, it was not possible for ANYONE to think "globally" because we hadn't all identified one another and couldn't communicate. So the real issue of the millennium is globalization--what we can do to have true international exchange.

What a great lead-in to this Web site discussion!  That's all for now. More later in the week...and after I get back.

Submitted at the end of the conference

The IAVE conference is almost over and it's been quite an event. The final tally is 92 countries represented! Of course, no one met everyone else! It's a bit dangerous to try to separate out feelings from facts this soon, but here are some of the things I learned. Also, these are some of the comments that participants in my workshops here shared as well:

1. It is very hard to have an international event. Language is still a barrier, although this event tried hard to translate the plenaries into 5 different languages. On the other hand, in one-to-one conversations, delegates generally manage to communicate because they are less embarrassed than trying to speak publicly. 

2. The mix of third world and first world countries has also provided challenges. When one delegate speaks about volunteering to support sports and recreation, while another is grappling with starvation and clean water, the differences are very apparent. But the STRATEGY of citizen action still seems universal.

3. In my two sessions this morning I had the chance to ask delegates what they were thinking as the conference drew to a close. They gave some of the following responses:

  • The diversity of volunteer examples here is staggering.
  • We are all dealing--unfortunately--with the same frustration of
    having executives and politicians who do not understand volunteering.
  • We are all dealing with questions of volunteer/employee relations.
  • It is sometimes hard to find common ground between people who are here "as" volunteers and those who are here as coordinators of volunteers--but it's worth the effort to try.
  • When we get back home, we need to share what we learned ACTIVELY. We ought to tell our work colleagues, our families and friends, etc.--but we need to tell them specific things. Then we ought to find conferences at which we can report what we learned, too.

A great suggestion: every volunteerism conference (at any level) ought to reserve a workshop slot for "relevant conference reports." Then they can ask anyone who attended something throughout the year to use that time to share. If this is done routinely, we'll get used to making the most of what we learn away from home.

4. The closing speaker was Barry Spilchuk, author of "A Cup of Chicken Soup for the Soul." He was warm and funny--a great closing speaker. I was quite impressed by one of his last comments. For a while now, he's been ending his presentations with 3 questions. First, he asks his audience to imagine they are in the midst of some catastrophe or natural disaster and have only 15 minutes before it strikes. Here are the 3 questions:

  1. Whom would you call on the telephone in those remaining minutes?
  2. What would you say?
  3. What are you waiting for?

He then adapted these for the World Volunteer Conference, particularly to empower each individual to act:

  1. Whom can you serve?
  2. What can you do?
  3. What are you waiting for?

Simple, but profound. I was also struck by something else he said:

"If you are serious about making an impact, first you have to get really clear on your vision--and then play with whoever shows up!"

5. The next IAVE Conference will be in January 2001, in Amsterdam--as the start of the United Nations International Year of the Volunteer. All conferees were charged with thinking about what we can do individually, in our countries, and internationally to use this opportunity to educate others about volunteering.

That's all from Edmonton. More when I return to Philadelphia.

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