Unsung Listeners: The Story of Hotline Volunteers

Guest Post by Marc Wong

Unsung Listeners - the story of hotline volunteersMeghan watches her mother finish a telephone call.

“Mommy, why are you crying?” she asks gently.

“I’m ok,” mommy sighs, “I’m ok.”

Meghan leaves the room and comes back moments later. “When I’m sad, I hold on to Mr. Brown,” she says, handing over a teddy bear to her mother.

On another occasion, Daddy is talking to Meghan about a tough decision he has to make.

“When I have to make a big choice, I ask Mr. Brown,” Meghan says.

“And what does Mr. Brown say?” asks Daddy.

“Nothing,” she says matter-of-factly. “He listens.”

Meghan’s actions give us a glimpse of what selfless, dedicated hotline volunteers do on a daily basis. Just like Meghan, volunteers do not judge. They do not advise. They do not solve problems. They do not interrogate. They do not point out your flawed thinking and actions so you can correct it. They do not tell you to look at the bright side or to be optimistic. And yes, sometimes they will just be quiet and let you speak. Volunteers honor and respect the callers’ thoughts and feelings and they offer their best with no strings attached.

When we look a little closer at Meghan’s words, we notice some other things: Despite her age, Meghan clearly knows something about sadness and making difficult choices. She even shares her life experience with her parents. Volunteers also bring their life experiences and considerable knowledge to each call. I don’t mean volunteers interrupt with their own stories the moment a caller pauses to take a breath. Volunteers are able to share by reaching into their own, sometimes painful, personal experience to understand what the caller is talking about, no more, no less.

Volunteers’ actions, like Meghan’s, are also gently supported by an unspoken sense of hope and decency. Implicit in Meghan’s words are the message that things will get better, that there is good in this world. This is not to say that volunteers pressure, or in any way impose their values or beliefs on the callers. Volunteers are not going to rush you to get “better”. They’re not even going to tell you what “better” means. Instead, they’ll be more than happy to hear what better means for YOU.

Volunteers earn their sense of hope from the knowledge and experience that their selfless work can bring relief. They don’t need to prove that there is goodness or fairness, in private or public spheres. They are satisfied knowing that the work they do can make a difference.

This, then, is the story of hotline volunteers. It is the wonderful combination of skill, knowledge and humanity offered so as to make it a little easier for others to tell their stories. A volunteer offers what is unique and precious to her as a human being so that others may talk about what is unique and precious to them.

For taking the time, having the patience, and putting their hearts into this noble work, please join me in celebrating and thanking all the volunteers!

Marc Wong is a listening expert and author of “Thank You for Listening: Gain Influence & Improve Relationships, Better Listening in 8 Steps”. Connect with him on Twitter at @8StepListen and on www.8StepListen.com.

The Nonprofit Nerd Inside Each of Us

What brings out your inner nonprofit nerd?Eight years ago, I was twenty-two. I was a couple months away from graduating and heading off to start my PhD program in Neuroscience, then on to a life of research and labs. Boy, was I nerdy about the brain. And yet…

As graduation approached, I began having doubts. Did I really want to spend the next 40 years or so doing research in a lab? Why was I not more excited to get out of bed every morning?

Meanwhile, I was also heading up a small student-run nonprofit organization called Camp Kesem, a week-long summer camp for children whose parents have cancer or have passed away from cancer.

When did you realize you were meant for nonprofits?And I realized: I was more excited to get up and do the daily drudgery and admin work for Camp Kesem than I was to go into the lab. Lightbulb moment.

It was right then when I realized my future (as much as it could be figured out at that tender age,) did not lie with science, but with a whole other kind of geekiness: the social sector variety.

Almost a decade later, I am PhD-free and happily working at VolunteerMatch, engaging with people and helping them find their own passions and their own ways of making the world a better place using their time and the time and skills of others. I guess you could say I’m studying the brain in a whole different way.

The truth is, as nerdy as I was about the brain, it did not inspire me the way working at a nonprofit inspires me: for life. It took my experience running Camp Kesem in college to bring out my inner nonprofit nerd and set me on this path. And every day I get to do what I love here at VolunteerMatch, that nerd grows just a bit bigger, a bit stronger. At this point, she’s probably taller than I am (not a tough feat).

In the day-to-day craziness of being nonprofit professionals, it’s easy to forget…ourselves. But we as people are just as important as those we’re trying to help, and those whom we’re engaging.

So let’s remember, every once in a while, to connect back to what originally inspired us. Because just as I discovered, we all have a nonprofit nerd inside us. What brings yours out?

Make Monday a Fun Day: Which Celebrity Do-Gooder Are You?

Don’t forget – volunteering is supposed to be fun! Sharing social good-themed stories, videos and quizzes is a great way to remind volunteers why their work is important, while keeping things light and fun.

VolunteerMatch recently partnered with Zimbio and United Way Worldwide to produce the quiz “Which Celebrity Do-Gooder Are You?”

Have some fun and share this quiz - which celebrity do-gooder are you?

So take the quiz, share it with everyone you know, and let’s spread some do-good fun today!

The Chicken, the Egg, Volunteering, and Employment

How are volunteering and employment linked?It’s not often we dive into data here. Stories of impact are so much more inspiring, and tips and tools are so much more useful. However, sometimes it’s necessary to haul out numbers to glean relevant insights about volunteering and nonprofits.

In this case, I’m not going to dive in headfirst – merely dip my toes in. I was curious about the nuggets to be found in the most recent “Volunteering & Civic Life in America” report released by the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS). It’s actually pretty easy to get caught up in this survey data, especially when comparing the volunteering information from different geographic areas.

For example, here are the cities with the top 10 volunteer rates in 2012:

  1. Minneapolis
  2. Rochester
  3. Milwaukee
  4. Seattle
  5. Salt Lake City
  6. Portland
  7. Washington, D.C.
  8. St. Louis
  9. Charlotte
  10. San Francisco (hooray!)

I thought it might be illuminating to compare this data to the most recent unemployment information from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. After all, the economy is the top priority for pretty much all of us, but especially for nonprofits that depend on the generosity and sustainability of the public. What I found is…interesting?

Of the cities that have the highest volunteering rates, only one of them (St. Louis) is above the national average in unemployment. In other words, most of the cities that are great at volunteering appear to have stronger than average economies.

Additionally, when I compared historical data from CNCS’s report, I discovered that the three cities on the list above that have dramatically lower unemployment rates than most others (Minneapolis, Rochester and Salt Lake City) have all been ranked in the top five for volunteering rates for the past few years.

What does this mean?

Well, it certainly suggests that there’s some sort of connection between volunteering and strong economic recovery. Of course, we shouldn’t get too excited yet:

Recently the Bureau of Labor Statistics released its annual “Volunteering in the United States” report, a supplement to the Current Population Survey. The data shows that in 2013, employed folks volunteered more than unemployed. So are these cities strong because they volunteer, or do they volunteer because their economies are strong? Is it the chicken or the egg?

One thing is certain: more data is needed. I won’t try to trick you into following me down the black hole of correlation vs. causation. But it does seem clear that volunteering and healthy economies, in some way, go hand in hand. And that makes me happy.

Books, Volunteers, and Creating Inspiration on Two Continents

Chris Bradshaw and the African Library ProjectWhat if you had never had access to books when you were young? (This includes e-books on tablets, too.) How would your life be different now? How would YOU be different?

Africa has the highest percentage of illiteracy in the world, and many African teachers have to teach reading, writing, math and English without even a single book to use as a resource. Meanwhile, U.S. shelves and landfills overflow with discarded books.

Enter Chris Bradshaw and her nonprofit organization, African Library Project.

The African Library Project engages volunteers to collect books for libraries in African countries.Chris realized the massive need for books in Africa, and she discovered she had a way to help. The books so many people in the U.S. simply get rid of could be used to educate an entire continent.

Since its beginning, African Library Project has been a grassroots organization. It has always depended on the generosity and leadership of volunteers across the country. In fact, the organization itself is completely volunteer-run – the board meets around Chris’s dining room table.

Read more about Chris and African Library Project, and how volunteers are the magic ingredient that bring books and learning to people a world away – and inspiration to us all right here.