Volunteer, Give to Free Ideas

What happens when you volunteer? Do you feel enlivened? Do you get when you give, whether you intend to or not? More specifically, do ideas come unbidden when you donate your time and talent?

I asked the last question on social media recently. One person reacted angrily. I guess he assumed I’d never volunteered or had only selfish reasons for doing so. In truth, I’ve volunteered a lot over many years. Two of my paid office positions came from volunteering. As part of both jobs, I supervised volunteers and interns—work I loved. A few years ago, I volunteered to organize other volunteers. To prepare, I read a stack of studies and managerial how-tos.

There are many reasons people give their time. Pure altruism isn’t one I’ve encountered, at least among spiritually mature souls. They know that however selfless their expressed motivations, professional (skills and contacts) and health (physical, mental, and social) benefits accrue from their offering free aid to people and the planet. Some of what volunteers receive can be measured—and has been.

Their saintliness and co-creativity, their net giving, are for a higher force to quantify.

More intriguing in this realm—and what I was trying to uncover on social media—is the mysterious birth of ideas from volunteering. Joining others to solve a problem, when there is no promise of monetary reward, can set off light bulbs. Some of them brighten the lives of individuals or populations in need; others shed light on our own creative pursuits, including writing. The dark pressure of competition lifts to release thought. New programs, new artworks emerge.

We leave behind the stingy ego to cycle between giving and receiving.

We become “otherish,” a term Adam Grant introduces in his book Give & Take, if not altruistic. The more people give, the more they produce, he contends. When well developed and given with joy, their gifts generate positive change.

Givers Who Got—Ideas

Take Robert Egger, who once ran a nightclub. One night in 1989, he reluctantly boarded a van to help feed homeless people on the streets of the nation’s capital. He saw inefficiencies, dreamed up improvements, and started a food-recovery operation that morphed into DC Central Kitchen, a number of other programs, and a career as a writer and speaker. Twenty-five years later, he started LA Kitchen.

In The Gift, now a classic, Lewis Hyde tells the story of Walt Whitman, who found inspiration by nursing soldiers in a Civil War hospital. By transcribing into letters and transforming into poetry the experiences of wounded and dying servicemen, he used his genius for healing. He thrived, creatively and psychologically, while collaborating with others to alleviate suffering. Though he later returned to nature to find his muse, he spent his happiest moments in the wards, engaging the edginess of life—gratis.

Giving—to nature too—is intrinsic to our creative health, corporately and individually. The circular miracle of gifts given and ideas received happens everyday. Mick Ebeling, winner of the 2014 Muhammad Ali Humanitarian Award, shares his story in Not Impossible: The Art and Joy of Doing What Couldn’t Be Done. Read Bill Shore’s The Cathedral Within for more examples of giving through meaningful work.

Advice for Volunteers

  • Just as you might start exploring art by coloring with your children or nature by walking to work through a park, begin volunteering by performing simple acts of kindness. Do something for someone you know, then, for someone you don’t know, and, finally, for someone out of your comfort range.
  • Decide what you can give. To whom do you want to give—people, animals, or plants? How much time do you have? Adam Grant recommends two hours, “chunked,” one day each week. Where do you want to volunteer? Locally or farther away?
  • Make certain you choose a place that has a formal volunteer program and requires the skills you want to offer. Be sure it schedules opportunities for learning and socializing and respects volunteers’ time and input. Ask around, as you would about a prospective employer.
  • To start, pick an institution whose mandate has nothing to do with your day job. Experiment. Learn new skills. Later, you can do pro bono work for an organization in your field. Caution: Will your volunteering negatively affect the job or freelance market in your profession? If so, will you be giving? Also, you may want to avoid pro bono positions if you’re in your prime working years. You may find people question why you’re available or undervalue your contributions. Although interning may lead to employment when you’re young, volunteering rarely results in paid work when you’re older, according to sources no less prominent than Richard Bolles in What Color is Your Parachute?
  • Be wary of those on the take: Keep your boundaries. Break down your barriers. Listen. Hold your opinions lightly. Practice empathy.
  • Stay only if you enjoy it. Gage when you’ve given all you can. You won’t be able to give, and others won’t receive, if you work out of duty. You want to feel energized, not sapped. Ideas need to escape.
  • Try volunteering virtually—across the world!
  • In keeping with my last post on arts in development, let me suggest Ten Thousand Villages. Stores across the United States depend on volunteers. You’ll learn a lot about fair trade.

Here’s a quote to ponder:

The gift turned inward, unable to be given, becomes a heavy burden, even a kind of poison. It is as though the flow of life were backed up. . . . Bestowal creates that empty place into which new energy may flow. The alternative is petrifaction, writer’s block, ‘the flow of life backed up.’

(Lewis Hyde, The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World [New York: Vintage Books, 2007], 189)

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What do you feel driven to give? Who will benefit? Does volunteering free ideas? Tell us quickly, before the sheer rush of creativity drives us from the subject of writer’s block forever . . .

And I run out of time to wish you a happy Volunteer Appreciation Month!

Setting Themes

Where Health, Environment and the Arts Meet is the slogan of Sebold Communications. It’s also the theme of my website and blog, the Bamboo Pen. The pen–chicory flower trademark graphically embodies my current work and writing, the way I see the world.

Like you perhaps, I enjoy putting together different fields and arts and breaking down barriers between peoples, even species. Interdisciplinary, intercultural programs and publications, when well designed and managed, make lasting impressions on audiences and can ease relations between political opposites. Behind every success lies a unifying idea, or theme.

Here are four steps you can take to develop themes for programs, publications, and businesses:

Imagine

Start with the message you want to impart or the subject you want to showcase—in other words, what you want to learn or accomplish and what you think might excite others. Don’t be wowed by the reputation of a speaker, artist, or writer just yet. Later you can choose a celebrity to present your program or compose a book chapter. For now, turn on music that evokes your topic. Get enthused about your idea. Do some research online or in specialized libraries.  Record all your thoughts. How can you weave together a series of programs or blog posts? A performance and a publication? A health presentation and a holiday celebration?

Before settling on a theme and tagline for Sebold Communications, I did a lot of thinking. In previous work, I had seen arts and cultural programs foster peace, environment, and health. I decided to write blog posts about not only environmental health, but also arts in health, arts in environment, and arts in development.

I got out crayons, colored pencils, a sketchpad. I found my old bamboo pen from Islamic calligraphy classes with Mohamed Zakariya. I paged through wildflower books. My mind wandered. Which colors would best suggest health and the environment; which flower, the world? After some bizarre drawings, I came up with a trademark and representative colors. To read up on Asclepius, I went to the Library of Congress with my reader’s card. And for a season, I took mock blog notes at art exhibits, science fairs, and international development conferences.

Visualize

How can you bring alive your ideas? Can you find a funder whose values reinforce your theme? Choose your speakers or authors now. Picture the room or the finished publication. How will people move through the conference room, negotiate the layout of your online or print report? Will there be a bottleneck at the pastry table? Will a well-placed graph enhance readers’ understanding of your project results? Place the tables and chairs or chapters and pictures with the takeaway in mind. You want to make sure your in-person and home audiences enjoy themselves enough to stay for the whole program or read the entire book. You want them to absorb your message.

For Sebold Communications, I had to design an attractive website in concert with a graphic artist and a website developer. I visited sites of Webby Award winners in the arts and sciences to see how they laid out their homes on the internet. I wanted to unpack the trademark on the inner pages, create mini-themes by using different chicory drawings on the services panels and the bamboo pen on the blog, or writing, page. Then I had to learn WordPress to compose pages and posts. At that point, I decided to alternate topical pieces with somehow-related articles on writing, editing, programs, or languages. For eight posts introducing the elements of my trademark and the format of my blog, I wanted photographs in blues, greens, and yellows.

[Update: In January 2016, Gallop Web Services helped me redesign the site to make it mobile and more useful to visitors. I also decided to concentrate on writing reviews of events and features on practitioners and scholars in the four interdisciplinary fields mentioned above. Tell me what you think!]

Publicize

Who is your audience? Where do they get their information? Do they read only professional publications and blogs? Or does your program or publication have broad appeal? Should you advertise on radio and TV? Which languages should you use? Should you bother with hard-copy brochures and press releases? Where can you mingle with your potential audience? At conventions or shared workplaces? Package your theme accordingly.

Which social media do your readers use? I signed up for LinkedIn early on, then Twitter and Google+.  LinkedIn reinforces my business, and Twitter reflects my blog. Most of the people I work with are at least on LinkedIn. Those who work in relief use Twitter, and those who manage programs gather in Google Hangouts. Communications and marketing experts know know that social media drive curious visitors to their organizations’ websites, where they can find publications and calendars.

Give

Think of something you can give free to your audience or readers, something that will match your program, publication, or business. With a souvenir, they’ll remember the experience longer and more fondly. Your report won’t get lost in a pile.

If you plan a program on the history of the camel as I once did, offer attendees camel burgers on toothpicks! In your next performance program, include a seek-and-find word puzzle whose solution underscores your theme. Watch early birds find the answers and stay in their seats at intermission. Are you doing a program on hand washing? Give out tiny soaps as health educators do.

At Sebold Communications, I haven’t quite gotten to this step. I’m not too sure about the white papers marketers advocate. Maybe I’ll write a blue or green one! Offering people free help with a tough sentence or two didn’t fly through Twitter. For now, I’ll stick with providing writing samples through my blog or editing a page or two from the middle of a prospect’s report. I might volunteer to organize a lecture.

Now that you’ve suffered my advice on setting themes and had the behind-the-scenes tour of my business and blog, let’s explore where health, environment, and the arts meet. The next post will in some ways be my first. I’ll write about the project that inspired me to blog: Environmentally concerned artists have crocheted coral reefs to call attention to the beauty and plight of real ones in oceans around the world.

After I spin that much shorter yarn, I’ll examine the structure of sentences and paragraphs. After all, words live closely together like corals, either happily or unhappily.

So stay tuned. Tell us about your creative process. Share news of health, environment, and the arts!

Green Business

\ˈgrēn ˈbiz-nəs\ n

In third grade, we had to invent something. I came up with the “pollution vacuum cleaner.” It would suck up all the trash and poisonous air and water in one snort. Maybe it was then that I decided to go green.

Fast-forward quite a few years. When I started my sole-proprietorship, I decided to run it as sustainably as possible. Here’s what I’ve already done and have in the works:

  • Clean Electricity. Like you perhaps, I’m very troubled by fossil fuels and the steady rise of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere. So I switched to wind to power my home office. Now, in my spare time, I can fight mountaintop removal and other destructive mining practices, with a cleaner conscience.
  • Green Web Hosting. By 2020, internet servers will probably emit more carbon than the airline industry, now the biggest culprit. With that scenario in mind, I chose a green web host when I designed my website. Now my real and virtual abodes are wind driven.
  • Vegetable-based Printing. Pigments carried in linseed (flax), canola, castor, and other vegetable oils release fewer volatile organic compounds (VoCs) than petroleum-based inks. The oils also degrade more completely than conventional inks and can be removed much more easily from paper during the recycling process.
  • Skipping the Car. I live downtown in a city with a fairly good public transportation system and many bicycle-friendly roads, so I don’t own a car. Bussing to meetings is an option. Walking and carrying my own purchases keep me physically fit, save me money, and help keep tons of carbon out of the air.
  • Environmental Education. Last but not least, I read to discover just how much I pollute, even without driving. I attend lectures and, in the process, network with potential clients. Before I engage a business, I research it. Does it practice and promote sustainability? No one is perfect. What are its intentions?

Do you have a sustainable business? What have you done? What do you plan to do this year? If you’re new to the idea, visit Green America for tips.

How can we make it easier to be green?