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Amy Belanger

About Amy

Voluntary Chaos

She who wants to have right without wrong,
Order without disorder,
Does not understand the principles
Of heaven and earth.
She does not know how
Things hang together.

Chuang Tzu, fourth century B.C.

One of the best developments in nonprofit management has been embracing efficiency practices from the business world — long-range plans, databases, application forms, policies and timelines. It is also one of the worst.

Margaret Wheatley, author of Leadership and the New Science, agrees. Wheatley applies insights from quantum physics to management theory, confirming something leaders know in their hearts but have had trouble building into management systems. That is, every system, natural and human, depends as much on chaos as it does on order. Just as music needs pauses between notes and nature needs ecstatic tumult called storms, so human groups need some measure of spontaneous space in which to generate genius, inspiration and common cause.

Like every modern discipline, management has borrowed from science, generating complex controls much like an engineer. But engineers embrace a concept most managers fear. In rapidly changing conditions, where maneuverability is critical, they design for instability. For that reason, both satellites and fighter jets are designed as unstable structures. None of us want unstable organizations, but the structure geeks among us may design programs too rigid to accommodate the most powerful motivator of a volunteer - the heart.

Wheatley says scientists are discovering that "order and form are created not by complex controls, but by the presence of a few guiding formulas or principles repeating back on themselves through the exercise of individual freedom." Whether describing a solar system, ecosystems or microbial colony, scientists say highly functional systems are based on principles defining an overall identity combined with autonomy for individual components. This results in some chaotic movement inside an ordered system.

In other words, volunteer programs need a dose of the chaos we work so hard to eliminate. The human heart needs to feel its body rising, stiff and sore, with a half-dozen other cross-legged cohorts who have assembled 30 press kits on the floor when there weren't enough chairs. We need to feel needed, like we're filling a space no one else could fill. That is the stuff of community spirit. It reminds us we are dedicated individuals willing to sacrifice personal comfort to serve something greater than ourselves. But if the volunteer manager has perfected every step of a project, down to the last paperclip, that need is denied.

Volunteers scattered across the floor were more common in the seventies and eighties when chaos management ruled nonprofits. In those days, dudes named Bill and Ted, whom nobody had ever seen before, would show up a little hung over saying they were sent by Saffron, the chic who floated through last week on her way to San Francisco. They would hang out distracting the staff for a few hours, then leave without actually doing anything. Good riddance, right?

The 1990's saw a value shift where practical achievement became as important as ideals, and sometimes more. Volunteer managers traded Bill and Ted for professionals signing up through ordered recruitment systems, and saw positive results for efficiency. At the same time, we lost sight of something just as vital to a volunteer program as our new systems.

Out the door with the anarchists, hippies and all-night envelope-stuffing went "Kumbaya" by the fireside, the intense friendships forged in the trenches of common cause, and the authentic pride of the heroes these experiences eventually made out of Bill and Ted. Busy professionals had no time for frivolity; common cause was tamed and packaged in stale mission statements; and authentic pride became a mere logo of itself on a certificate.

In a peculiar form of anti-progress, volunteer recruitment became toilsome, and managers had to drum up ways to revitalize volunteer programs. Nonprofit journals are replete with excellent articles on how to spice up volunteer recognition and misguided ones that recommend a convenient "show me the money" model. Show me a volunteer manager who sends his latest hero to Schlotsky's with a gift certificate and I'll show you a father who sends his attention-hungry children to the mall with a $50 bill.

Imagine something different, more inspiring, and more human.

Picture a volunteer manager finding out in conversations over the fax machine that Bill and Ted are brothers. They can only afford a tiny rented room because they volunteer all of their time to women's shelters since losing a loved one to domestic violence. Imagine a profile on these two in the local paper, furthering the cause and their spirits by making them public heroes, and possibly landing them flexible jobs that allow them to keep volunteering. Picture others being moved and inspired by the everyday heroism of your volunteers, and the passion filling your nonprofit from the healing taking place among your volunteers.

This is a far different picture than the awkward volunteer dinner where volunteers are honored with ticky-tacky desk clocks, which will wind up in a desk drawer, then a box of clutter, then an attic, and finally a garage sale or the city dump.

Today's managers must take a lesson from the new science, the explosive sales of motivational and personal transformation programs, books like the Chicken Soup for the Soul series, and corporations looking to new management models like Deming's. The proliferation of these ideas is evidence of unmet longings volunteer managers are wise to notice. We live in an individualistic, competitive and materialistic society, and those traits may indeed be part of human nature, but so are the longing for meaning, purpose and community. Unmet, those longings form a wound in the heart and spirit of a people.

Many volunteers come seeking essential needs presently missing in their lives. The challenge available to volunteer managers is to go beyond filling volunteer slots, and evolve into enlightened leaders - leaders who unite the societal needs their program fills with the personal needs of the volunteer for meaning, purpose and community. When we achieve this, we no longer simply accept magic - we create it.

Out of this magic arises the spirit of a volunteer program that inspires its members to stay committed, to share their commitment with their friends, and to rise to new levels of leadership themselves. When the friends come, the volunteer manager needs to be ready for them, with an organized volunteer system - and a little magic.

When you're organizing your calendar, writing that policy manual, or structuring the new committee, leave a little space for chaos. It's where the magic lives. Oh, and by the way, it's also where the results live.

Recommended Readings for Volunteer Managers

Leadership and the New Science: Discovering Order in a Chaotic World, Margaret J. Wheatley, 1999: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, San Francisco, CA. To order: 1-800-929-2929.

The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of the Learning Organization, Peter M. Senge, 1990. Doubleday, New York, New York.

The Corporate Mystic: Guidebook for Visionaries With Their Feet on the Ground, 1996. Gay Hendricks, Ph.D., Kate Ludeman, Ph.D., Bantam.

Leadership is an Art, Max DePree, 1989. Doubleday, New York.

The Age of Unreason, Charles Handy, 1989: Harvard Business School Press, Cambridge, MA.

The Hungry Spirit: Beyond Capitalism: The Quest for Purpose in the Modern World, Charles Handy, 1999. Broadway, New York.

The Power of Purpose: Creating Meaning in Your Life and Work, Richard J. Leider, 1997. Berrett-Koehler, San Francisco.

The Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America, David Whyte, 1994. Doubleday, New York.

 

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