A Conversation with Paul Loeb

Today the Chronicle for Philanthropy held a web chat with esteemed author Paul Rogat Loeb of the book Soul of a Citizen: Living with Conviction in Challenging Times. He took questions for about an hour and touched on many topics that those who deal with volunteers, nonprofits, and social activism take on in a daily basis.

I would encourage you to go to the transcript page and read through the Q&A. Here is the link http://philanthropy.com/article/How-to-Transform-Volunteers/65475/

Personally, I believe the best questions came in the first 30 minutes for those concerned with volunteerism. The second half was definitely dedicated towards the operational side of nonprofits. Great questions about public policy and lobbying concerning nonprofits were asked that is going to help my efforts here in MS. And my question was actually the first of the day! I am so flattered and honored! Here it is –

Good afternoon! My nonprofit in Mississipi has recently kicked off a new project directed at recruiting & connecting local volunteers with nonprofits in need. It is called VolunteerStarkville (.org). What methods should we explore in trying to turn around this state’s poor record of volunteerism? We are partnering up with local businesses to get tangible incentives for “volunteer of the month” award – but what tone or attitude should we try using or be careful not to? Our kick-off is Thursday! Thanks!

Paul Loeb: To use the academic phrase, it’s probably harder to get people involved in areas with less social capital–I’d think that Mississippi would fall into that category. Social connection builds on itself as does social disconnection, so the challenge is to get people out from their private lives and connecting with others. Honoring people with the incentives seems a good idea, but I’d also have people who have volunteered talk about what they get back from having participated in similar efforts, to give people a sense of why it matters. Also have them talk about the barriers to involvement they hit. That’s always important.

But volunteer to volunteer reach is critical whatever the cause. In Soul of a Citizen I talk about how MoveOn did a major and pretty successful phone outreach campaign to mobilize voters in 2006. But only about 100,000 members participated out of 3 million. In 2008 they had members call other members to encourage them to get involved. Their participation rate jumped dramatically–there were other factors involved but almost a quarter of the members did something active in that election.

He also talked about the need to show people how Gandhi, Rosa Parks, and others did not start off as the heroes we know them as. They all did lead regular human lives before they found there calling. And it did not happen over night. Rosa Parks was a civil rights fighter for 12 years before her action on that one bus drove her historical legend into the hearts of Americans.

And that is what I took most from this conversation. That each of us has intrinsic motivations for shredding our secluded private lives in order to help our neighbors and community. As nonprofit and community leaders, it is our job to help people that it is our own unique process to go from the couch to volunteer to social activist.


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