Guerrilla Goodness: an interview with "Dreamcatcher" Ivan Scheier

Volunteering as a creative act - you go where you can make a difference

by Ed and Gay-Wynn Cooper, reprinted from In Context, with permission
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 volunteers.
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 volunteers.
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 do it!
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 organizations?
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 are necessary?
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 wrong reasons?
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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