I was recently invited to address a group of Timnath residents about community service and activism. This is a subject I’ve written about for other area publications over the years, and North Forty News featured a previous column of mine on this topic on June 29th of this year.
The group was interested in both volunteerism and activism. There’s a clear distinction—the former is usually by invitation, whereas the latter involves addressing some common cause, perhaps holding the unaccountable, accountable, or rallying others for a beneficent purpose.
The following is a summary of my personal experience-based discussion, a primer of sorts for community service:
First and foremost, make sure your volunteerism is welcome. While an invitation usually means somebody wants help, proactively suggesting they need help may not be well received. Good intentions may come across as tacit criticism, especially if the would-be recipient of those intentions is not open to constructive input and/or feels they’re being made to look deficient to others.
Be sure you can devote the required time. I’ve been involved with organizations where, despite clear expectations about the commitment, some volunteers were more interested in adding their resumes’ participation than actually contributing. And regarding time, you will quickly find that 10 percent of the volunteers will perform 90 percent of the work.
Know what expertise is expected of you, if that’s realistic, and whether or not the organization sincerely wants your assistance, especially if you’re being recruited for your specific talents. Determining this before signing up is more difficult than you’d think, and you want to avoid being the messenger who gets shot. Besides, if I’m not contributing, I quickly lose interest.
Meanwhile, be sure to pay your dues before trying to bring about change in an organization. Your reputation doesn’t automatically precede you. And you better have a thick skin; there’s something about volunteerism that invites incumbents’ proprietary defensiveness toward new members who try to impose their will too soon.
Don’t be surprised if others take credit for your efforts. Shameless self-promotion is alive and well beyond the corporate world.
As noted above, activism is different from volunteerism, although the former often starts with the latter. When I see an issue begging for attention, I usually try proactive assistance but then double down via the creative activist route if I encounter the aforementioned ingratitude. There’s usually more than one way to skin a cat, as they say where I’m from.
Activism often requires that you seek alliances with others (there’s strength in numbers), but beware of getting left holding the bag. I learned too late that you sometimes must go it alone when others inevitably go along to get along.
Be prepared to take some arrows to bring about change. I’ve been a regular Colonel Custer at times, but it was always worth the cost.
Above all else, if you become engaged in community service, whether volunteerism or activism, do it for your own satisfaction and don’t expect thanks. If you do something nice for 10 people, and only 1 acknowledges the act, feel fortunate you heard from that many.
My childhood hero was Davy Crockett – frontiersman, soldier, and politician (I had a fine little coonskin cap). He famously said, “Be always sure you’re right, then go ahead.” Things didn’t end so well for old Davy, but he would have enjoyed the swell song someone wrote about his well-meaning intentions. There’s great satisfaction in community service, both volunteerism, and activism, but make sure you think it through first.
Phil Goldstein writes Tales from Timnath periodically for North Forty News. Phil is a 10-year Timnath resident who serves the Town of Timnath as chair of the Timnath Planning Commission. Phil is finally using his journalism degree after getting sidetracked 47 years ago. The views expressed herein are Phil’s only. Contact him with comments on the column or suggestions for future columns at NFNTimnath@gmail.com.