This post was originally written for and published at The CVN Forum, a blog for the Community Volunteer Network.

Finding a great volunteer opportunity is about finding a great fit between your personality and the needs of the position.  A good volunteer opportunity requires an actual human being to fill the role, and there is a chance to bring your uniqueness to the position.  For example, I recently started volunteering with The Women’s Center in Vienna as

The Women's Center logoan educational program assistant.  The Women’s Center has been working for over 30 years to further the psychological, career, financial and legal well-being of women and families. However, what got my attention about the position description was the opportunity to sit in on classes.  I love to learn new things and will take a class in almost anything as long as it is free and I’m not being graded on it!

Last night was my first time assisting with a class.  I was impressed with how organized the volunteer program is. I received detailed instructions, but was also working independently and able to be authentic in welcoming the participants, introducing the speaker, and handling registrations.  I felt as if my role was important, I represented the Women’s Center.  In class we learned about sugar cravings and how to conquer them.  The class was taught by a passionate and well trained nutritionist, Kristy Rodriguez, and I learned quite a bit.  The participants really enjoyed the class, but I was disappointed because the class size was very small.  The two hour class was $25 for members ($50 membership fee) or $35 for non-members, which seemed very reasonable.  They have reduced fees for women who are in need of a discount.

Next Thursday I am volunteering again, this time for the Successful Resume Essentials class.  There is still room to sign up (you can even register at the class) and if you are currently unemployed, you would most likely qualify for a reduced fee.  If the class is anything like the Sugar Blues class, it will be compelling and informative!  Hope to see you there!

The Women’s Center is looking for other people to volunteer in the same role that I am in.  Most of the classes are held in Vienna in the evenings, but they also have classes on Saturdays and are hosting a few in Arlington.


One of the hallmarks and nightmares of the ODKM program, is our use of a research process and paper we call the “PRAE”.  From the perspective of the grad student that is forced to write these papers, PRAE is a four letter word that elicits fear and anguish.  However, when I was at our Learning Community on Sunday and had a moment of enlightenment, I realized that when I have finished grad school, I will be grateful for all of the practice of what is really experiential learning.

The PRAE is based on David Kolb’s work on experiential learning.  The idea is that you can work through a cycle to take your “concrete experience” (what happened at work for example), reflect on it, conduct research based on the questions that arise, and then create an action plan for testing your new insights.  In this way of thinking about self study, your experiences in life are always potential for a learning cycle.  At the same time, your actions are really experiments in life, which, if you choose to reflect on, you can learn from.

Experiential Learning Cycle

When I am done with grad school (wow it sounds great to say that), I will continue trying new things, asking “what” questions, reading, being curious, and making choices about how to act in a given situation.  Now, when I leave a meeting thinking, “how did that go so wrong?”, I realize that I have the skills and technique to actually pursue an answer and enter the next meeting more aware.  Maybe there is something to this whole school thing…  now if someone could please remind me of that when I have 3 PRAEs due this semester, I would appreciate it.

Camp FantasticYesterday my sister Nora got back from a week at Camp Fantastic, a camp for kids with cancer, run by Special Love. My sister was there as a volunteer. She served as both a camp counselor, supervising two girls for the week, and assisted with classes (such as Film Class). This is an opportunity that my sister looks forward to every year. As a childhood cancer survivor herself, the camp serves as both a way to give back as well as a strong community of other survivors and families who understand this unique challenge.

Special Love’s motto is that every kid has a right to be a kid. When I see Nora talk about her time at camp, it seems like the real motto is that everyone has a right to be a kid for a week. The counselors get so into the fun, spending months beforehand planning and collecting donations (Nora collected bags upon bags of toilet paper rolls to make decorations for the dance), and creating magic at camp. They turn camp into a place where anything is possible and where adults are there for the amusement of children, though it is hard to tell who is having more fun.

Camp Fantastic makes a huge difference in the lives of children battling cancer. It is all possible because of volunteers who commit their time and their heart to this program. On paper, this endeavor should not be possible. Most people would not be able to imagine that a week-long camp for kids with very serious health problems, almost entirely run by volunteers, with an extremely limited budget would even exist. Luckily, it does and it should be looked to as an example of the best that can come from volunteers getting together and having a lot of community support to pursue a worthwhile mission.

Do you know of similar camps in other parts of the country? How do they do it? What about other volunteer-run initiatives that seem to accomplish impossible feats? What can volunteer programs learn from successes like Camp Fantastic?

Post from Rotary about their involvement with Camp Fantastic

Video from TBD News about this year’s Camp Fantastic

Radical Evolution book coverSchool’s back in session, which means I am hitting the books again.  This semester delivers up a strange mix of texts and I decide to start (while still in vacation in Vermont) with Radical Evolution by Joel Garreau.

I have to admit, I started off hating this book.  The author seemed to be trying to shock and awe in every paragraph without actually reflecting or challenging his own thinking.  Early on he also puts down the Virginia Square neighborhood (where my campus is), so I was annoyed at him on that front as well.

Anyways, once he got passed drawing the reader in with salacious examples, he actually got to a very interesting presentation of scenarios.  Scenario planning is a technique that we first read about in The Age of Heretics, and ever since reading about it, I have wanted to try it.  Garreau takes the assumption that “technology drives history” and this concept of the exponential rate of change of technology to posit three scenarios, Heaven, Hell, & Prevail.  As a  critical optimist (?), I saw prevail as the most likely scenario.  However, I overcame my disagreableness with the Hell scenario as Garreau explained that thinking about worst case scenarios is a helpful way to actually avoid worst case scenarios.  In the end this book raised many questions in my mind and answered almost none.  Hopefully I can come back and reflect on some of those questions on this blog.

For now, a few highlights from the book:

Quote about immortality from Francis Fukuyama, who sees this issue as a moral issue,

The deeper issue is, can people conceive of dying for a cause higher than themselves and their own f***ing little petty lives?

Quote from Bill Joy,

Scientists do not believe they can do their work if they have to consider consequences, but such free passes are no longer sensible in the age of self-replication.

Quote from Brown and Duiguid,

It is through planned, collective action that society forestalls expected consequences (such as Y2K) and responds to unexpected events (such as epidemics).

Quote from Jaron Zepel Lanier, who thinks that “the belief that a human is like a computer [is] the current repression”,

The very nature of oppression has always been to force people to live within the confines of some idea about what a person is.

Quote from Don Kash,

The great management issue in the world is not scarcity, it’s surplus.

Summer semester (ODKM program at George Mason University) has officially come and gone.  As you are pulling together your summer reading list, maybe I can recommend a few gems from my own recently read list.

In no particular order:

1. Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl  – when I first saw this as an assigned text for the Leadership class, I was confused about the relevance, but after reading Frankl’s beautiful work, I think it should be read by all future leaders.

2. Flawless Consulting by Peter Block – this tome is a must read for would be consultants.  I also bought the fieldbook and companion, but I would not recommend it unless you get a great deal on the pair.  Also, I have heard there is a new edition coming out this Fall, so you might want to wait till then to purchase it.

3. Confessions of an Economic Hit Man by John Perkins – Perkins drove me crazy with his ego and money lust, but he has a great story to tell and a lot of thought provoking commentary.  I chose to buy this one as an e-book, which worked well.

4. Organizational Consulting by Edwin Nevis – Old school OD.  This is the most theory heavy text that we read this semester.  It is a short book, but packed with challenging ideas.  If you need to read this for class, start early and take breaks to absorb the ideas.

We also read a tree’s worth of articles.  I will try to pick out a few to highlight in a future post.

Back to follow up from the National Conference on Volunteering and Service for a moment….

Besides the professional volunteer managers and national service members, there were for profit companies and celebrities at the conference.  As the service movement gains popularity, and volunteering is seen as cool, many companies and brands are looking to partner.  Last fall, the Entertainment Industry Foundation worked with individual celebrities as well as TV producers to promote service through their programming and PSAs.  In most cases these partnerships are win-win.  The celebrity or company gets good PR and the organization has greater visibility and may receive donations, volunteers, or free marketing.

At one of the first sessions that I went to, CauseCast showed this video from Ben Stiller:

This video and the type of civic activism that it represents is seen as a win for the service movement.  This model rests on the following assumptions:

Assumption: celebrities will be perceived as more trustworthy than the average joe and therefore a better spokesperson for your cause

Assumption: having a celebrity promote your cause will help your cause

Discussion / Reflection Questions:

Are those assumptions always correct?

Is Ben Stiller a volunteer leader?

Most volunteer policies say that you can not volunteer to do the same work that you do for pay.  For instance, a County social worker can not volunteer to screen homeless clients.  Ben Stiller is an actor and he is now acting on behalf of a cause.  Is he being paid?  By whom?

If he is not compensated are there labor law considerations?

Can you be paid or receiving material benefit and still be a volunteer leader?

Is the definition of volunteer leadership more about your actions, or about your intentions?

Is the concept of “being” the same as intentions?

Do celebrities who are promoting causes while also promoting their own brand muddy the waters of volunteerism or is this a great innovation in the social sector that changes the paradigm of giving?

That’s a lot of questions I know, but I have far more questions when it comes to this model of volunteer leadership than I have answers.  I would appreciate your insight or suggestions for other reading on this topic.

Peter Block and John McKnight

Peter Block and John McKnight

Today I had the pleasure of being part of a discussion group with John McKnight of the Asset-Based Community Development fame.  He and Peter Block (one of my favorite authors) have just come out with a new book, The Abundant Community.  (note: the book just came out so I have not read it yet but plan to do so as soon as I’m done with school reading)

McKnight focused much of the conversation on the importance of associations for democracy and strong communities.  In this context he is referring to groups of people (usually neighbors) who get together to identify the issues in their communities, figure out how to solve community problems, and organize the community to implement those solutions.  McKnight argues that associations are one of the defining features of the US and were identified as such as far back as Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America.  Robert Putnam, in his book, Bowling Alone, brought to light the fact that associational life as we have known it for centuries in the US is on the decline (and has been since the 1960s).

With McKnight and Block’s new book they hope to demonstrate that associations are not just nice to haves, but are essential to a community’s core functions.  They outline six areas in which associational life is key to community health:

  1. Personal wellness – 90% of an individuals health is based on life factors, including their connections to their family and neighbors.
  2. Safety – community policing and National Night Out are just a couple of examples of the role neighbors play in safe neighborhoods.
  3. Economy – the majority of jobs are related to local businesses
  4. Environment – the decisions we make at a local level are key in grassroots change
  5. Food – McKnight cited the importance of local grown food
  6. Children – it takes a village to raise a child

I appreciated McKnight’s key arguments, but it left me wondering about the difference between networks and associations.  One of McKnight’s arguments for associations is that institutions have reached the limits of what they can do for us.  This is the same argument that I hear Beth Kanter and Allison Fine making in the Networked Nonprofit.  It seems like everywhere I turn these days I am reading about how powerful social change and social movements happen through networks.  I don’t hear the word association used at all.  Are networks the same as associations?  If not, why not?

The way that I live my life as member of the millennial generation, I live it through networks.  Using social media, I keep in contact with people that I have met throughout my life.  If I switch jobs, move to a new city, or just have a question about how to do something, I turn to my network.  I reinforce my relationships with people through face to face interaction, but the online networks like Facebook and LinkedIn make it possible to maintain those connections between face to face gatherings.  I may join an association for a short period of time, but with my greater need for flexibility and my penchant for moving regularly, I am less likely to invest time and make a commitment to an association.  When I speak to the interservice club council and others like them, they are very frustrated by young people like myself who are not joining local associations.  The advice that I and others have given these groups is to be more like a network.

So now we get back to the question from my recent post about free agents, How does the connection someone has with their online networks affect their relationship to local in person networks?

Or to put it another way, are networks and the free agents that thrive in them the answer to Robert Putnam’s concerns about the unraveling of associational life?  If not, what are we missing and how can we build those features into a way of connecting with one another that embraces both the best of the social web as well as lessons from centuries of voluntary associations?