After more than 30 years of volunteering, the person I am least interested in encountering is the well-meaning ineffective helper. These folks hearts are in in the right place, just their heads are in another county. In the grand picture of an organization that depends on volunteers a good heart can have as much value as expected output. That said, when we are on the ground needing 30 people to staff welcome tables and only 15 show, I accept the math of volunteers is that less will show than pledged and I also manage my expectations for the amount of work that ends up getting done.
Sounds rather pessimistic…Not to internationally lauded business consultants, IDEO. Harvard scholar Teresa Amabile co-authored an article about their culture of helping as a value that leads to great client outcomes. One of the qualities she found that made this helping culture work was a certain amount of slack in people’s work day. In addition to their clear work assignments, people at IDEO are expected to be helpers on other’s projects. So, following IDEO, rather than being pessimistic about volunteers I am just building in the expected slack I have observed over the years. The kids call it, “Keeping it real.”
The value of giving is this month’s theme because on June 24 Ride 4 Roswell, the world’s largest 1-day cycling fundraising event takes place in Western New York and Ontario. It attracts more than 8000 riders (including me), raises more than $5 million and is supported by 2000 volunteers. Founder Mitch Flynn talks about his value of giving in the interview this month.
That number of 2000 led me to wonder who volunteers and why we do it. One reason I do it is because helping others makes me think less about myself and that’s a good thing. And, while “thank yous" are sweet, I cherish that silent connection when my friend looked me in the eye savoring us moving a truck full of furniture that he wasn't to anxious to tackle on his own.
Earlier this month I attended the University at Buffalo School of Management Un-Conference. There I learned about the Reciprocity Ring originated by Wayne and Cheryl Baker. Presented by Dr. Prasad Balkundi, it gathers together anywhere from 20 to more than 100 people to share personal or work related needs. Then each person in the ring is asked to offer any real help they can to meet the stated needs. Dr Balkundi stated that each time he has done this, initial skepticism gives way to elation when all needs end up being met.
He shared that it’s origins are found in the culture of Papua New Guinea’s Kula Ring ritual.
To my surprise I knew of this because of my interest in Lewis Hyde. In his book, The Gift, he examines all sorts of giving exchanges across time and cultures to make a case for the value of art in our modern society. He noted, “the development of kula partnerships has many social implications.
1. They establish friendly relations among the inhabitants of different islands and maintain a pattern of peaceful contact and communication,
2. They provide the occasion for the inter-island exchange of utilitarian items, which are shipped back and forth in the course of kula expeditions,
3. They reinforce status and authority distinctions, since the hereditary chiefs own the most important shell valuables and assume the responsibility for organizing and directing ocean voyages.”
It's as if the trinkets exchanged in the Kula were just a symbol of the strong weave of a far-flung society that depended on each other for growth and survival - sort of like helping my friend move furniture was the symbol and deepening our friendship is what really mattered. Or the importance of volunteers with all level of skills to a mission-driven organization is that each volunteer is validating the mission through whatever support they give.
I was also pointed to Adam Grant, best selling author of Give and Take, his book on a culture of giving. He included Reciprocity Ring as a main part of a chapter examining the part exchange plays in our world today..
Like the skeptics in Dr. Balkundi’s sessions, some writings I found shared an air of surprise over giving and the Reciprocity Ring actually working the way it does - as if - someone is putting something over on someone else. Grant validated this by sharing studies and personal experience with hundreds of students and business people. He identified three categories people fall into - givers, takers and matchers. The first two are self-explanatory the third defines one who seeks a reciprocal exchange - where giving and taking in equal fashion is expected. He said that experiences like the Reciprocity Ring can lead takers and matchers to move over to be givers but it is never quite that easy to fully change a value that is deeply ingrained. He found that takers, even when they are giving, find a way to leverage the giving into a future opportunity for taking.
Against this there is the business success of IDEO and others such as Zappo’s - where they institutionalized helping as a value and a good business practice.
Perhaps the missing factor in my volunteer expectations mentioned above is what IDEO, Zappos and others like them have figured out - giving, or helping behaviors, seems to bring greater value when practiced regularly with purpose, with defined parameters and supported from the c-level to the front line.
Maybe the well known phrase “practice random acts of kindness” can be amended to read “practice deliberate acts of kindness repeatedly….”