The motivation to volunteer is usually not due to a single reason. But when it comes to going back for the second, third, or hundredth time – it usually is a single factor that drives us. And while we might infer it’s existence in our discussions of volunteerism or Philanthropy, it is never usually listed specifically. But this little mentioned motivation is the most essential aspect of volunteerism.
In the last entry I listed the fairly rehearsed reasons for volunteering. It’s a good list. Well thought out. Comprehensive. Accurate. And its not that they aren’t good reasons, its just that they aren’t good enough.
I then suggested that there was a reason that you won’t find on any of the classic volunteer management lists. Its a motivation that is more compelling and reflective of people’s actual experience than all the others combined. It depends on the space that is created for the volunteer, and the leadership that is giving oversight, but sometimes it happens no matter what. It’s mystical, mysterious, and unexpected.
I’ve come to refer to it as ‘the voice’.
You may be more comfortable with ‘the cosmos’ or ‘my higher power’ or Allah, or God. Maybe even ‘authentic self’ or ‘inner guide’. Essentially, the voice is that dialogue you hear inside yourself, spoken in moments of epiphany and transformation. If the space is right, and you are open to hearing something beyond the gossipy chatter of a busy mind, the voice will tell you something…something meaningful.
The concept of the voice is ancient. When we extend ourselves…when we move beyond what we believe we can control, manipulate understand and quantify, we may be moving into what the ancient Celts and Native Americans referred to as ‘thin space’ or a ‘thin place’. For them it was a cave, a mountain, river or some sweeping landscape where the chatter faded to distant whispers, and life seemed to still itself. Here, the space was ‘thin’ enough for them to hear the voice speak meaningful revelation.
You may have experienced a thin space of your own. Maybe it was at the birth of your child, when all things came into clear perspective. Maybe it was cresting a hill as the sun rose and feeling a peaceful confidence that your life has a purpose. When we volunteer and we are with people who are not common to our day-to-day experience, (not all the time and not in every organization or role…but often enough) we find ourselves in a space thin enough to hear the voice.
In that space, the voice talks to us about who we are. It does not speak only of our jobs, our roles in the family, our characters in the cast of friends we hang out with, or even the secretive ‘un-admitable’ pieces of our darkness. The voice speaks to us as whole people. We are all of these things and much more. The voice tells us things that are true by leading us to ask better questions about our world and who we are within it.
Time after time, I have watched the white, middle-aged, male executive, equipped with sincere intentions of ‘helping the less fortunate’ start a conversation with the middle aged, black male, fresh out of jail and trying to make a new start. The executive tries to think of helpful things to say. He feels awkward and his tie is too tight. Before long, he decides to let the ex-con do the talking and then it will be over and he can get back to work. As the conversation progresses, the executive finds that he is actually listening. He hears the man speaking of the value of family and the joys of freedom. He begins to think of his own family, his own life. He begins to hear the voice. It whispers questions… questions without words, but full of meaning. I can see the questions being painted across his furrowed brow and perplexed eyes. I can see him looking at the ex-con with an expression that belies, “Maybe we’re not so different after all.”
The executive didn’t come looking for this. No one does. Even if someone were to tell you, as I am now, about this profound (and all too secret) benefit of volunteering, you would not be able to anticipate the results any more than we know what genuine love is by just talking about it.
But if we are open to hearing the voice and receiving the epiphanies of meaning that inevitably follow, we will come back. We will volunteer our time regularly and willingly. We will acknowledge the benefits and the motivations of the many lists, and agree to their sensible inclusion. But, more importantly, we will always know that the most important reason to volunteer can only ever be understood by just volunteering. The experience must precede the understanding. Like love.
See you on the soup line!
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