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The Wisdom of Seth

The Wisdom of Seth

Susan J. Ellis once remarked that leaders of volunteers are the ‘busybodies’ of the nonprofit world. She was referring to our need, by virtue of our work, to know everything and everyone in order to be effective. Despite this, we tend to have a narrow frame of reference for sources of inspiration, innovation or different thinking, often looking only to what’s new and exciting in the field of Human Resources.

There are a lot of smart people who work as leaders of volunteers and there’s a lot of good material about Volunteer Engagement available. However, we would be remiss as a profession if we didn’t look well outside our sphere and take advantage of a much broader range of truly ‘other’ types of ideas and thinking that challenges and inspires us.

In this Points of View, we consider the “wisdom of Seth” – namely, Seth Godin, a Hall of Fame marketer, author of several best-selling books, and a hugely popular daily blog writer who also happens to be one of our favourite thinkers and sources of inspiration. As we dissect a few of his marketing blog posts, we identify different perspectives, thoughts, and ideas that Volunteer Engagement professionals should consider, and explore those unexpected pearls of wisdom gained by reading the work of thought leaders from totally different fields. Granted, not all of Godin’s blog posts can be applied to Volunteer Engagement work. But many of them highlight core truths that speak broadly to working with people, understanding them and their motivations, and striving towards simple and effective ways of working. And I think we can all agree these are things that all professionals can aspire to and be inspired by.

To get started, we suggest you read Godin’s blog posts (via the links provided on Godin's own blog titles in bold below), and then read our discussions that follow each blog title. By way of introduction, we also provide the following video to introduce Godin and allow you to hear why we think his work is so meaningful for Volunteer Engagement: 


The Spiderman Paradox - Rob

Our colleague Andy Fryar once said:

“When I talk about the evolution of volunteer management, I talk historically about how we have evolved from being a ‘people profession’ to a ‘paper profession’. An evolution that moved us away from primarily having a focus on the volunteer to one, where our focus is now on the process. For a while, we had this balance right, but in my opinion, we have now gone too far. It’s time for a new evolutionary direction - we need to find ways to become a ‘persuasive’ profession! We need to learn to influence, to develop key relationships – instead of simply just adding another volunteer to the team.”

Chances are you are the only volunteer manager in your organisation. That means you have the responsibility for Volunteer Engagement – for what it currently is and what it could become. Sure, the day-to-day operational work might be spread around the whole staff team but, ultimately, the buck stops with you. That means you have the responsibility to speak out and influence, to do more than just adding more volunteers to the team.

It also means you have the power to take Andy’s next evolutionary step. We often don’t like talking about power because it has negative connotations. Like it or not, we all have it. Some have more than others, but we all have some. If you are the in-house expert on Volunteer Engagement that gives you power, power you have the responsibility to exercise.

We need to bring our responsibility and power together to be proactive and effect change. Not change for the sake of it, but so the impact of volunteering on our clients and mission can be grown and enhanced. Being proactive can feel scary, but the more we do it, the more influence we have. As Stephen Covey put it in his book, The Seven Habits Of Highly Effective People: "Proactive people focus their efforts in the circle of influence. They work on the things they can do something about. The nature of their energy is positive, enlarging, and magnifying, causing the circle of influence to increase.”

In his article, Godin says that “culture is what we build, and that’s powerful.” How are you using your power and responsibility today to grow a positive culture of volunteer engagement for the benefit of your community?

Don’t Steal Metrics - Rob

I can distinctly remember a Volunteer Manager I knew getting all excited that their senior management team (SMT) had finally agreed a key performance indicator for Volunteer Engagement. On their monthly reporting, the senior managers would now track how many volunteers the organisation had and how many hours they volunteered for. My heart sank. Here’s why:

“If you only focus on the number of volunteers and the number of hours they serve, in the current climate of continuous improvement, the only thing you leave open to improve is the number of volunteers and hours! So as volunteer resources managers we set ourselves up with having to constantly provide more and more and more volunteers year after year. There is no way to achieve this expectation successfully, because the number of volunteers and the hours per staff assigned to manage them (i.e., our span of control) are finite. We are setting ourselves up to fail.”

 Making the Case: Strategic Reporting on Volunteer Engagement 

Why is the goal to have more volunteers and more volunteer hours? It may be a common goal, a popular goal, but it’s someone else’s goal. It means you have to divert your attention and expertise from delivering a great volunteer experience and put it into an endless cycle of volunteer recruitment for recruitment’s sake and pointless data capture.

Always paying attention to the front door means no attention on the back door. You can recruit more volunteers and lose just as many because your focus is in the wrong place. And since when did how much time people spend volunteering indicate how much impact those volunteers have had?

Metrics like this fly in the face of what Volunteer Engagement is all about: transforming communities and lives for the better. That’s your role, to facilitate that positive change. Find your own metrics to measure that success and tell you how to improve. Exercise that power and influence for good.

Trapped By The Incoming - Rob

It’s easy to focus on the day-to-day. There’s always another email to reply to, another knock on the door to respond to, another phone call to answer, another coffee to make, and another chat to have with a volunteer. And we should do those things. We are in a people business – people are our business. We have to invest the time and effort in our people if we want them to make the biggest difference possible for our organisation, its clients, and for the volunteers themselves.

But we mustn’t let ourselves get trapped by this work. We mustn’t let it dominate our time, leaving us with no energy or time to do two important things.

First, we must take the time to be strategic, to influence, to wield our power and responsibility to grow and develop Volunteer Engagement in our organisations. Volunteer management is about the day-to-day and the strategic, about giving people a great experience, and building the capacity for more people to have that great experience. We never move forward if we allow ourselves to be trapped by the incoming, the day-to-day.

Second, and even more importantly, we must carve some time to look after ourselves. Volunteer managers are so often focused on others – volunteers, clients, the community, potential volunteers, staff, board members, etc. – that we rarely focus on ourselves. That lack of self-care leads to burnout, stress, and an impedance of our ability to do the best job we can.

The day-to-day of what we do is important. But if it isn’t done in an effective strategic by Volunteer Engagement professionals who look after themselves, it won’t get done as well as we want.

The Professional Pushes Back - Erin

Volunteer Managers suffer from terminal niceness. Some might even say it’s a congenital problem that we can’t escape. This shouldn’t be a truth we accept. Professionals can be nice, but terminal niceness isn’t professional.

What makes the ‘niceness’ we have problematic is that it eschews best practices in exchange for blindly saying yes.

“Professionals have standards. Professionals push back,” means having an independent set of morals, principles as well as benchmarks for what distinguishes bad volunteer engagement from good. These touchstones don’t shift because someone on the Board thinks tracking volunteer hours is a good idea, or that it’s OK to give certain work to volunteers "because we don’t pay them anyways."

Professional Leaders of Volunteers push back against not only the dangerous and unethical, but also the short-sighted and uninformed. We don’t strive to keep volunteers and their impact in the limited space they currently exist; we push to demonstrate the exponential power and transformation that volunteers can be key partners in.

Just imagine what could happen if we were all 37 percent less nice and started pushing back. What could be possible?

Of Course It Could Be Better - Erin

If scientists were to do a meta-analysis of the most common phrases said by leaders of volunteers, it would likely be a bemoaning of the need to ‘make things better.’ For some that means more respect; for others it’s a career ladder that reaches higher; for others it's simply more understanding and insight into the value of our work.

What I love about this particular Godin post are the first and last sentences.

The first line – “That’s not the question, not really” – asks us to stop and consider what is behind what seems a simple and basic comment like “of course it could be better.” When we don’t take a moment to examine the assumptions and baggage carried by such statements, we can wind up taking action and making decisions that answer the wrong question and, therefore, don’t address the actual underlying issue.

For example, a few decades ago, as a profession we aligned ourselves with Human Resources, thinking this would earn us respect and legitimacy. It hasn’t, and won’t, and can’t. Because the right question wasn’t which discipline we should align ourselves with to gain what we wanted. The right question is more likely to be something along these lines:

  • What aren’t we doing that makes it so hard to demonstrate our value?
  • Why do we think we deserve respect?
  • What does better mean and what does it look like?

To my way of thinking, if we can’t answer these more specific questions, then more general ones like “How do we make things better?” are both irrelevant and a distraction from the more fundamental issues that will actually help us ‘make things better.’

Then there’s Godin’s last sentence: “The key words are now and I.” Like “The Spiderman Paradox” above, there’s a responsibility that is inherent when we recognize something could be better. Maya Angelou once said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”

Once you have acknowledged the limitations or failures of something, you admit there is an opportunity to do better. Because you have made that comment, the responsibility rests on you. Going back to the meta-analysis idea, if so many of us have had the feeling that things should be better, then why aren’t we seeing progress? Where is the urgency, the ‘now’ to make things better?

It seems to be the tragedy of Volunteer Engagement that we’re not only asking the wrong questions, but so few are urgently trying to answer them.

Three Kinds of Forever - Erin

Absolutes are interesting things. They appear in our minds as real, solid, and immovable. Yet most absolutes exist only in our minds or are based on social constructions. Not so long ago, most people would agree with the absolute that “a volunteer can’t do that” – whatever that happened to be. Now, not so much.

Forever implies a long time. As Godin rightly points out, there are frameworks around types of forever. The forever of discomfort, plenty, and never are three ‘forevers’ that feel like they’ll never end, but is that true? There are some definite extrapolations for leaders of volunteers in the three ‘forevers’ Godin talks about.

The first, the forever of discomfort. This is about those times that feel like they’ll never end but are really a small ‘dip’ or impermanent phases. The kinds of discomfort so many leaders of volunteers comment on – like isolation, career limitations, being bottom of the totem pole – have been around for a long time. Asking ourselves who and what is keeping us in this space and acknowledging this isn’t a true forever is the first step to creating an end date.

Second, the forever of plenty made me think of so many different things related to Volunteer Engagement. For instance, the presumption that there’s a magically never-ending line-up of people willing and able to volunteer, or that volunteers are a renewable resource no matter what we do or don’t do with them/to them/in spite of them.

When we really start critically looking at what we’re presuming is a ‘forever of plenty,’ there are some shockingly big constructs we’ve placed in this box. For example, the charitable sector is built on the premise that volunteers will not only always be available, but can and will donate time in certain organizationally determined ways (times of day, specific roles, lengths of time). Even our worldview of how volunteers ‘ideally’ behave is based on the ‘Greatest Generation’ and regarded as the forever we need/want to get back to, if only we recruit the ‘right’ volunteer or do ‘x’ to retain them for the next 40 years.

When we flip plenty on its head, we realize that so much of what we do in terms of recruitment is actually based on an idea of scarcity. “Volunteers Urgently Needed” and the like are the dominant narratives used to tell people that we want them to give us their time and talents. Have we really asked ourselves what else this is saying?

Dan Pallotta’s Uncharitable TED talk helped challenge the rewards given to nonprofits for spending as little as possible, rather than acknowledging that bold solutions to social issues take brave investments. Considering that so much of the knee-jerk pushback that leaders of volunteers get is based on the old ‘volunteers are free’ mental model, perhaps it’s time for us to do our own TED talk called “Involuntary.” Because nothing remains plentiful forever without sustainable investment.

And last but not least, there’s my favourite, the forever of never. We’ll never get to the tables we want to, never have large budgets, never be included in strategic planning – not with that attitude and belief. As Godin says, “If you believe it, it’s probably true.” He goes on to say something else just as provocative and, in my opinion, as uncomfortably true for too many of us: “If you believe it, you just let yourself off the hook, which is comforting indeed.”

It’s an unspoken question, but what if too many of us are happy in the forever of never? Secretly satisfied with the bitching and moaning about our lot? What if the forever for leaders of volunteers is actually a forever of good enough and untapped potential? Now that’s a forever I hope to never see.

Outro / Conclusion

One of the things we both love about Seth Godin’s blog posts is his ability, in just a few short sentences, to encourage deep and fundamental thought about an issue. Godin’s mantra is for people to make a ruckus, to challenge the status quo, and take action.

We hope that in this Points of View we have started some of that thinking for you, inspiring you to reflect in new ways on some of the fundamental beliefs you may hold about your role as a Volunteer Engagement professional.

If we have, then please don’t let that stop here. Keep that thinking going. Challenge yourself and others so we can move our profession forward. Make a ruckus.

You can start by joining the discussion and posting a comment below. And if you have other sources of inspiration and thinking outside the Volunteer Engagement field that you’d like to share, we’d love to hear about those, too.

To add or view comments

Wed, 09/04/2019
Great video and excellent article. Thanks Rob and Erin! I also followed Seth Godin for a few years and found his notes to be very helpful perspective (and inspiring!). More importantly I think the two of you have done an excellent job of showing us how the perspectives of other professions can be used to inform our thinking in Volunteer Engagement. Not only is it important to "look outside our sphere" for the sake of inclusivity in our considerations and decision making, but for the role we play in our organizations as leaders. As you noted, Volunteer Engagement knows most aspects of the organization, and well. We are positioned to bring our leadership to the table. Yes we need to push back, yes we need to advocate for the true value of volunteerism, and we most definitely need to take multiple perspectives into account and broaden our thinking, therefore credibility and impact. I have a generalist background, I have worked many different angles in the non-profit sector and I enjoy this greatly because I connect with my colleagues in their language and it allows my language in Volunteer Engagement to be more encompassing of the role that NGO's and volunteerism play in our society. I love what you are both saying. Let's not forget to expand ourselves, our thinking, our perspectives and let's not forget to act now on the whole picture of providing avenues for participatory citizenship. The whole picture being, what is best for my organization, is best for the volunteers, my community and me.