Guerrilla Goodness: an interview with "Dreamcatcher" Ivan
by Ed and Gay-Wynn Cooper, reprinted from In Context, with permission
Volunteering as a creative act - you go where you can make a difference
he possibilities for creativity and service through
volunteering make it yet another reason why a life that is less dominated
by paid work could be a rich and satisfying one. That was the experience
of Ed and Gay-Wynn Cooper, who last fall joined IN CONTEXT as full-time
Ed and Gay have worked as educators, writers, wellness
consultants, change agents, and dentist and dental hygienist, respectively.
About three years ago, as IC readers, they were introduced to the question,
"What is enough?" This had what they describe as a profound effect
on their lives, leading to their transformation from workaholics to full-time
Ed and Gay's exploration into the question of how volunteering
can be both a joyful experience and one that can make the world a better
place led them to Ivan Scheier. Ivan has won a following world-wide for
his work promoting volunteering. Currently, he is director of Voluntas:
The Center for Creative Community, (Star Route 46 Madrid, NM 87010). However,
his title for himself - Dreamcatcher in Residence - gives you a better idea
of the essence of this man. Even if you can't volunteer full-time right
now, we think you'll enjoy getting to know Ivan.
Ed: In a nutshell, what is your definition of volunteering?
Ivan: One of my definitions of volunteering is doing more than you
have to - because you want to - in a cause you consider good.
Ed: How would you describe the image of volunteering in the mind
of the general population?
Ivan: Well, I think it is more honored than it used to be. Maybe 30 or 40
years ago it was seen as something your wife did to get out of the house
a couple times a week.
Now, volunteering is a kind of status symbol. In fact,
98.4 million Americans volunteered in 1990. Within these ranks, there are
almost as many men as women, people of all ages, and more different ethnic
groups than ever before.
The mission of volunteering still faces prejudice in
our culture, which holds that money is the measure of success in life. If
you are paid $50,000 a year and I'm paid $25,000, your worth is twice mine
- in two senses, both as a human being and financially. So when I work as
a volunteer and earn nothing, the conclusion is that neither I nor my work
is worth anything.
Gay: In reality, both organizations and volunteers themselves get
caught up in that image.
Ivan: Oh yes, you hear it all the time: "I'm just a volunteer."
The label doesn't help you get things done, particularly if you're a man.
There is still a gender difference out there.
In order to be taken more seriously I generally call
myself by the name of what I do: I'm on the medical clinic committee, or
I'm "Dreamcatcher in Residence" at a think tank and retreat center.
Gay: Is the climate for volunteers different now? Are organizations
seeking volunteers? Or do people still need to go and knock on doors and
say, "Can I volunteer for you?"
Ivan: Most organizations are used to someone who comes in three hours
a week and does some assigned, often rinky-dink stuff. I'm sorry, but there
is a lot of that. Some organizations have rigid guidelines and requirements
for volunteers, but most are in need of help and welcome anyone.
So when you come along and say you want to work 30 or
40 hours a week, this is very different. Most organizations do not have
a model for using a high-powered person with a lot of experience who is
basically willing to be "staff without pay," especially if this
level of commitment comes with an expectation of some participation in the
decision-making process. This can be threatening to most organizations,
and you do have to knock on doors. You tend to be more able to have this
kind of experience in an all-volunteer organization or as a free-lance volunteer.
I think you may get to the point where you find, like
I did, a gap. There is no organization out there doing precisely what needs
to be done. And, since it needs to be done, and you feel very deeply that
you would like to do it and you can do it, then I think you should just
One of the first activities at this stage is to build
a support system. That is one of Voluntas' activities - being a Dream Factory.
Right now, there are eight or ten people who have dreams but no money. We
concoct strategies, conspiracies to make their dreams happen.
Gay: What an interesting service to offer. I know we were very naive
when we made the decision to be full-time volunteers. You are helping me
see how fortunate and special the opportunity is that we have.
Ivan: I do think the human service delivery system is challenged
even by the three-hour-a-week volunteer; they don't fit into the usual management
slots. How do you control workers? You give them money and orders. When
someone is a volunteer you take away these controls. It's enormously challenging
to the boss, to the line staff, to anybody in the organization.
Gay: On the other hand it's very freeing for the volunteers not to
worry about losing their jobs all the time. Is this why you advocate all-volunteer
Ivan: Yes. It's in all-volunteer efforts that I've found risks can
be taken on behalf of quality of life. Well in advance of big budgets and
bureaucracies, undeterred by cautious boards, here is the cutting edge of
compassionate enterprise, where positive change can begin to happen.
I have always seen volunteering as something creative.
You vote with your volunteering; you go where you think you can make a difference.
You don't need to waste your energy fighting the system.
I think to empower the creative spirit, to make volunteering
for dreamers again, we've got to be forming our own groups. There are certainly
some problems with entirely volunteer groups, but at least you have a chance
to make a direct impact.
I also advocate, with the Center for Personal and Planetary
Empowerment, something I call "guerrilla goodness." This is the
business of free-lance volunteering; committing random acts of kindness
is another way of saying it. That's totally new. I think we have a blind
spot in our thinking, a belief that you can't do anything unless you are
associated with an organization, and the bigger and more powerful the better.
We forget that the big organization is likely to present its own problems
with getting things done. So, as you surmise, I'm most interested in "social
entrepreneurs" who establish their own programs, do the work, and then,
when the time comes, let them die.
Gay: Let them die?
Ivan: Oh, yes, let them die as soon as they need to. Euthanasia of
programs, that's a neglected area!
Ed: Are you saying that you don't feel that long-term volunteer organizations
Ivan: No. I think organizations are necessary for certain kinds of
functions and for people who prefer more structured environments. Lots of
people are more than willing to help if they do not have to go out and get
the whole project going. These people do an important job and so do the
organizations. It's just unfortunate that many long-term organizations get
encrusted with bureaucracy. I don't think we put them out of their misery
as quickly as we should.
A valuable role that volunteer organizations serve is
that of linking in the community. This role gets overshadowed when the energy
of the organization is going into self-preservation.
Ed: How, in your view, can we interest and challenge individuals
who would like to come out of the closet and share their gifts?
Ivan: First of all, I think what the New Road Map Foundation is talking
about - helping people to rethink their relationships to money - is critical.
We need to get rid of the fear that "If I'm not out there earning money
I'm not worth anything." This doesn't have to be full-blown financial
independence as in the New Road Map plan, just a willingness to spend more
time doing what you value and less time working for the almighty dollar.
The second thing is adopting what I call a people approach
rather than a job approach. I do not go to people and say, "We need
some help with the library. Could you help us with this?" Rather I
ask, "What would you like to see done? What do you like to do?"
I try to make volunteering as free and easy as possible.
Let people do it their way! And let it be fun! You don't have to be martyred
to be a volunteer.
Ed: So when we have volunteers who do what they really want to do,
they are likely to approach their work in a different way.
Ivan: Exactly. They're volunteering for fun, for meaning and choice.
Everything we've done with organized volunteers - like job descriptions,
supervision, evaluation - says to people, "You really don't have a
choice. If you work for us, we're going to take all these choices away from
you, and you'll be structured and controlled." Control is really what
it's about. This may work for some people, but there are lots of other structures
that are more empowering.
It's also good to remember that people have the right
to be left alone, not to participate. If they want to sit on their duffs
in front of the TV, it's a free country.
Ed: Is it your experience that sometimes people volunteer for the
Ivan: Are there really wrong reasons? If it's not pure altruism,
is it not right? Saints are very rare. I think there are a lot of non-altruistic
reasons, and they are OK. I want my kids to have a better education so I'll
help out at the school. I'm new in town, I want to meet people and connect;
I'll volunteer at the library. In South Dakota there are singles clubs that
do volunteer projects together and help members to make connections.
There are some reasons I would consider wrong, such
as being a power tripper, shoving people around, displaying your own self
importance and not really caring about the cause. I think it's very wrong
if you're doing it because of a social expectation, but your heart isn't
there. You are going to short the people you are serving and short yourself.
Ed: These suggestions are exciting. They also avoid resource leakage.
Do you have any other suggestions along these lines?
Ivan: Ultimately, you will only be able to do what volunteers are
willing and able to do. So why not give them a more direct share in setting
goals in the first place? It's important to realize that powerful purpose
isn't just something you hope will happen to your group. It must be cultivated.
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