Several years ago I was walking through the student union at the University of Illinois-Urbana in December of my senior year thinking about law school, which I’d be entering the next fall. My course was set, at least for three more years, so I needn’t be worried about my future for a while longer. Then I stopped in my tracks just after passing a Peace Corps recruiting booth and stood there thinking. I vividly recall the gist of what I said to myself as I stood there: “I’ve been a good boy if there ever was one. I’ve kept my nose to the grindstone for almost four years, and I’ve done pretty well, academically speaking. But what difference have I made in anyone’s life up to now? I know I can contribute something important, and maybe the Peace Corps is the way.” Making a spur of the moment, life changing decision, I turned around and walked back to the booth. Six months later, in early June, I flew from St. Louis to Los Angeles for Peace Corps training at UCLA, and that fall arrived in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where I spent three wonderful, deeply satisfying years teaching ancient history and English at Tafari Makonnen School.
I was thinking about my uncharacteristically unplanned Peace Corps experience as I listened to the podcast we’ll be posting at this blog next week by two seasoned CEOs – Mick Fleming of American Chamber of Commerce Executives and Susan Robertson of the ASAE Foundation. Mick and Susan talk about what’s going on in the world of nonprofit volunteering, among other things pointing out an apparent trend: a new breed of young volunteers expecting to do really meaningful work that’s closely linked to the values, vision and mission of the organizations they serve and to make a significant difference through their volunteer effort. It struck me, listening to Mick and Susan, that these new volunteers coming down the pike have an idealistic streak not all that different from the one that fueled my Ethiopian adventure.
If I’m right that idealism is alive and well among this new cadre of potential volunteers, then associations and other nonprofits are well-advised to think seriously about appealing to this idealistic strain in recruiting volunteers. One way is to make sure that the message going out to potential volunteers focuses on the higher ends of volunteering – organizational values, vision, and mission – and, more substantively, ensuring that the volunteer experience is explicitly designed to contribute to these higher ends.
You’ll hear what Mick and Susan have to say on this subject next week. Meanwhile, I’d love to hear what readers think about my take on idealism and volunteering.