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Success vs. Wonder (Finding the Balance of Volunteer Engagement)

August 31, 2008

I spend a fair amount of time volunteering in the Atlanta community for  Jewish and non-Jewish causes.  And much of my volunteer work involves attending many meetings (in both boardrooms and in parking lots) and reviewing many strategic plans, initiatives, approaches, and objectives.  And while I continue to find meaning in my personal volunteer experience, I have becomes increasingly concerned that we have developed a balance of volunteer life in the Jewish community that incorrectly manifests the essence of the volunteer experience.

In essence, we are focusing increasingly on the language and recognition of success, when I think we should be focusing more on the language and appreciation of wonder.
I worry that by focusing on communal ‘success’, we make our volunteer experiences too objective and results oriented, whereas if we spend more time focusing on the wondrous nature of volunteer experiences, we might actually enhance our volunteers ability to make a difference – individually, Jewishly and communally.

By now those who are familiar with Heschel’s writings know that I am referencing his often-repeated statement that was in the preface to his book of Yiddish poetry:

“I did not ask for success; I asked for wonder. And You gave it to me.”

I admit that I am partial to Heschel in many areas of thinking, but none more than this statement. In its simplicity it is a profound commentary on so much of our lives. However, I have found it particularly insightful in understanding the way we increasingly view our volunteers and volunteer leadership – as instruments of institutional success, rather that embodiments of Jewish wonder.

We need to change this viewpoint.

How many times have you been to a meeting of a Jewish institution where leaders are defining what success might look like in organizational terms rather than Jewish terms? How often does the conversation around the tables of Jewish leaders focus on why certain efforts are (or are not) successful rather than focusing why it is Jewishly important that they are successful?  How many times have individual leaders defined their prospective terms in office by enunciating their ‘goals’ in the beginning of their experience, only to then struggle with the meaning found in achieving those goals once the experience has ended?

In sum, how often do all of the “success-focused” moments in Jewish volunteer life outweigh the “Jewish experiencing and learning” moments that are encountered by volunteers in Jewish organizations?

Admittedly, there needs to be a focus on achieving organizational efforts in a thoughtful, strategic and measurable manner. And key to that focus is the performance of professionals and volunteer leadership working together – seizing opportunities, engaging in tactical approaches and measuring performance.  But that is what happens in for-profit organizations as well. Aren’t Jewish community organizations intended to be different? And doesn’t that raise a few other questions?

In using the secular language of business and organizational management we gain many things.  But what do we lose?

In using business rules, are we losing the wonder of Jewish involvement?

Are we ‘organizing’ so much that we are losing the Jewish ‘experiencing’?

Are we ‘evaluating’ so much that we are losing the Jewish  ‘learning’ and ‘appreciating’?

At their origins, our community institutions where built with an essence of Jewish souls – a collective neshema that reflected the efforts of the many.  Are we in danger of our strategic plans replacing our collective soul as the center of our organizational efforts?

These are some heavy questions that merit significant consideration by minds greater than mine.  But they need to be raised, and they need to be answered, because these questions impact tremendously on the way we engage, educate and empower (what I refer to as the three “E’s”) our community volunteers and leadership.  If we orient our volunteer experiences in ways that only manifest themselves in a semi-professional endeavor for success, what happens when we don’t succeed in a particular endeavor?  What happens when success is elusive and long-term?  Will our volunteers still come back to our community organizations for more experiences, or will they seek out those in which they feel more successful, regardless of whether they are Jewish organizations or not?

My guess is that when we overemphasize ‘success’ to the detriment of encouraging ‘wonder’ we might find that in those areas where success is not instantly measurable we miss the opportunity to engage volunteers in wondrous ways.  Those wondrous ways include helping the volunteers experience spiritual moments, community moments, creative moments and learning moments in their capacity as volunteers.  These moments, taken together, may not instantly yield the measurable success that donors individuals, foundations and federations seek, but they may very well yield the wonder that will fuel future success.

Leveraging highly skilled volunteers to achieve critical plans for the future of the Jewish people is important, and we must not lose sight that we need to measure our performance in achieving those goals. But when volunteers (and even professionals) are oriented to evaluating their experiences in terms of wonder rather than success, they might come back for more – in more ways than they did before.  They will continue to ask for (and experience) wonder, and in turn, be willing to continue to assist with success.

Because we need volunteers that encounter both success and wonder in our communities…

… whether we ask for it or not.

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One comment

  1. Seth – I guess this is what happens when business people who value the bottom line take over organizations that are geared to address the spiritual needs of people. The two don’t mix very well. On the other hand, why is it that our spiritual organizations rely heavily on spiritual people to handle the business side of their work, ie.e, rabbis and other clergy?

    Somewhere there needs to be a balance between the organizing part and the development of the spiritual side. Maybe it comes down to the need to really understand the purposes of our organizations and then to develop a business plan that is designed to create the opportunities for the spiritual side to develop and create wonder in the hearts of the people!

    thanks for challenging our thinking.

    Paul



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