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Looking at the Brighter Side

Looking at the Brighter Side

In 1987 an Englishman named David Cooperrider1 suggested a new approach to helping organizations create models for how they wanted to develop.  Called “appreciative inquiry” the method involves, among other things, getting people to create a vision of what they would like an organization to be and how they would like it to “feel” and operate.  It focuses the group on envisioning positive factors, not the more common planning techniques of looking at needs, problems and potential threats.

We have, in Points of View, spent some time in past columns looking at questions, problems, difficulties and quandaries. Alas, there are a lot of those things in our field to look at and ponder.

But since that’s not the only picture, in this issue we thought we’d focus, for a change, on what is happening in volunteerism that is positive and right.  All those things, in other words, which we tend to take for granted because they aren’t causing us any trouble.

And we thought we just make a list and see what you might like to add to it:

1.  Welcome to the Golden Age of Volunteering.

Those who have been around for a while always speak of past times when things were better, but it’s hard to make a good case for that notion when it comes to volunteering.  There is more public attention paid to volunteering than ever before; volunteering is supported – often in substantive ways – by all sectors of society; and volunteering is increasingly viewed around the world as something that ought to be encouraged and supported as part of a well-functioning society. Not surprisingly, people respond to this by volunteering in increasing numbers, whether for well-publicized disasters or small local problems.

We have definitely arrived in the public eye, however cross-eyed its perspective may sometimes seem.

2.   Volunteering works.

In earlier days we often claimed that volunteering was a “good thing,” both for the volunteer and for the recipient of services.  Guess what – we are right.  Numerous studies have demonstrated that volunteers, properly used, can alter the circumstances of clients, often in ways that paid staff cannot.  Even more numerous studies have demonstrated that volunteering positively affects a volunteer’s mortality rates, psychological outlook, happiness, sex life, social connections and just about everything else. 

It’s nice to be in a business where the product is even better than claimed.

3.  Volunteers are the silver lining in the cloud of disaster.

Susan’s been pointing out this truth for a long time, but the tsunamis, hurricanes, and earthquakes of 2005 ought to lay any doubt to rest forever.   No matter where in the world disaster strikes, it’s volunteers who respond.  Usually first.  And often better than the official authorities, or at least in ways that simply make sense at the moment, on the ground, regardless of bureaucratic red tape hindering the more formal assistance that will eventually materialize.

It also happens that volunteering during the aftermath of a disaster benefits the giver as well as those in need.  When you feel powerless, doing something alongside others who care as you do puts you back in control.

4.   A little knowledge is a good thing.

When Steve started out in this field 30 years ago he was engaged in a project to collect the research data on volunteering.  This turned out to be a relatively short task, especially if you didn’t count things written by Ivan Scheier2.  These days there are hundreds of new research reports and studies published every year, far more than any of us can actually assimilate.  Now a lot of it, as is common with academics, is composed of fairly silly attempts to prove someone’s crackpot theory, but bits of it are quite interesting and potentially helpful to people running programs. 

Three decades ago we were simply making things up because we didn’t have any clues – these days we not only have clues, we have diagrams and road maps and manuals from people who have been there, tried that, and have a few suggestions to make. 

5.   It’s a small world, after all.3

Volunteerism is an international phenomenon.  Steve spent part of last month in Berlin, at a European conference of volunteer programs.  The topics – how to involve youth, what government can do to support volunteering, how to teach agencies about effectively involving volunteers – were subjects familiar to us all.  People may have been using different terms (as well as different languages) – volunteering, active citizenship, civic engagement – to describe what they were doing, but the tune was very familiar.  Susan reports the same experience in Ecuador, Japan, and Singapore (among others), in case you were wondering if volunteering transcends US/European culture.

Can’t find an example of what you want in your country?  Don’t worry, you’ve got 128 others to look at…

6.   It’s a tangled Web we weave.

Steve thinks that future times will chart the course of history according to two phases:  Before Internet, and After Internet.  It’s hard to think of a technological development that reshaped the course of society so quickly and so dramatically than the World Wide Web.  And volunteering is no exception – we now have virtual volunteering, international volunteer manager listservs, web-based volunteer recruitment sites4, etc. Susan has developed an online volunteer management training system for use by national volunteer groups.  We even have e-Volunteerism, an international journal whose existence would literally have been inconceivable fifteen years ago. 

All of these were developed by people who didn’t grow up using the Web – imagine what will be created by those who actually know what they’re doing!5

7. Everything I need to know in life, I learned from working with volunteers.

It may sound mushy and goody-two-shoes, but we are lucky enough to be working in a field that brings out the best in people...and working with the best in people engenders optimism even in the face of pessimism.6  Volunteers are the sunny and loving side of things and, in our less defensive moments, we can acknowledge that the world would be a better place if everyone applied what learn from volunteers to other social interactions.  To whit:

  • Actions speak louder than words or checkbooks.
  • When we look for the essence of individuals instead of judging them by their formal credentials, we often find that being "qualified" to do something lies more in attitude than in experience.
  • Everyone has exactly the same number of hours in a day. Be conscious of the value of the time some people share generously with you...and never waste it.
  • Do not underestimate the power of a sincerely-expressed “thank you.”
  • When you are not "in" the box," it's easier to think "out" of it (which is why it is best to recruit volunteers who are as different from paid staff as possible).
  • Volunteering is an equalizer. It finds the common denominator among otherwise diverse people and allows them to work together to meet goals that matter to them all.
  • Progress is made when more people say "I can do something about that" than say "that's not my job" or "it's none of my business.

8.  Volunteers remain on the cutting edge.

Also worthy of celebrating are the many rock solid, intellectual, even aggressive aspects to volunteering.  Every revolution begins with one step taken by one maverick and that person is always a volunteer (no one is paid to rebel).  In the past twenty years alone, we’ve watched volunteers fight against drunk drivers, initiate hospices, buddy people with AIDS, start charter schools...and lots more.  In fact, the Web itself owes its existence to people like Linus Torvald, who was determined to provide technology open to all at no cost. 

Watch the cutting edge today: how Internet technology is being made accessible in the poorest of countries; who’s in for the long haul in rebuilding storm-devastated neighborhoods; who’s doing long-term planning for the first space colony.  If it’s new, look for volunteers.  

9.  We have the mandate to dream.

Perhaps the most positive thing about our work is that we have the power to act on what we can dream up, not just on what we can afford.  Of course volunteers are not “free,” but we also do not need cash to test an idea, providing someone is willing to give it a try.  The main things necessary to accomplish a goal are confidence, determination, time, effort, and the participation of a growing number of advocates. Money is nice, but it can't substitute for the other ingredients.

If it's truly worth doing, perhaps it's worth doing even if there is no money to pay for it (yet).  Volunteers can take the initiative to start the work, even as they also start the fundraising.

We are limited only by our imagination and our unwillingness to ask for help. When we ask, we get. Often in amazing abundance.


1 See, among others,

2 Not that you would, of course, unless you wanted to throw out everything else and just read Ivan, thus saving yourself a lot of time and aggravation.  [Ivan, who is actually Consulting Editor here at e-Volunteerism, was the first person on the national scene to attempt to assess, evaluate, and count things in our field.  During the 1970s he founded and ran the National Information Center on Volunteerism in Boulder,Colorado – and he took the word “information” seriously!]

3 Sorry, couldn’t resist.  Steve is actually writing some of his part of this while at the Disneyland Resort, surrounded by topiary of Mickey Mouse, a slightly surreal experience.

4 Speaking of which, go to and take a look at the state of the art in using the Web as a means for showing prospective volunteers what they’re getting into and why their worries about volunteering abroad are groundless.  Then imagine trying to do this without the Internet as a delivery mechanism.

5 Thus finally enabling us to have an aspect of volunteer management not invented by Ivan Scheier.  Anyone who knows Ivan will readily attest that the Internet is the one thing for which we can be absolutely certain Ivan was not responsible.

6 See Susan’s Hot Topic on this theme, and Energize site visitor responses, at

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