Volunteer or Indentured Servant?

July 28, 2006 at 10:02 pm Leave a comment

Congregation Beth-Israel has just finished a successful fundraising campaign. The campaign’s purpose was to purchase playground equipment for the children of residents of a local battered woman’s shelter – a great cause and an example of tikkun olam in action. Not only did Beth-Israel raise enough money to purchase the equipment and its installation, they raised enough to set aside a fund for future maintenance of the playground. The campaign was a success.

The major players in this campaign were four active members – Ruthie, Arlene, Joan and Lizzie. All four women are active sisterhood members. Arlene is chair of the social action committee. They all worked tirelessly for nine months planning and executing this project, often meeting several times a week at the synagogue. The local newspaper writes an article about the new playground noting that the funds were raised entirely through the efforts of Congregation Beth-Israel. The article did not mention by name any of the four women, though the rabbi acknowledged that it was a congregational effort. This is okay for Ruthie, Arlene, Joan and Lizzie. They do this work because that’s what tzedakah is about, seeking justice anonymously without expectation of personal gain. The synagogue proudly posts the article in the entrance foyer with a poster-sized sign saying, “Thanks to all our members who participated in this effort.” The project and newspaper article were the topic of the rabbis newsletter feature for the following month. Again, no one is cited or thanked by name and again, the group members say nothing.

Several months later the city officials ask the rabbi to help plan a citywide, interfaith event renaming a downtown park after a famous local philanthropist. Arlene happened to be in the synagogue office the day after the rabbi agreed to participate in this event. Since she did such a magnificent job with the playground project, the rabbi asked if she would chair this event. He also suggested that she enlist the support of her former fellow committee members. Of course, Arlene agreed – and, so did Ruthie, Joan and Lizzie.

Sound familiar? Synagogues reward successful synagogue volunteers with more opportunities to volunteer. For most volunteers, this cycle lasts a few years until they finally decide, often with personal and private embarrassment, that they can no longer work so hard with so little in return. All they really want is a heartfelt “thank you” and a little recognition for their efforts. Synagogues do not know how to do this and so the cycle repeats itself over and over. People like Ruthie, Arlene, Joan and Lizzie often keep up their service because they innately understand the concept of kol Yisrael arevim ze ba’ze — all the people of Israel are responsible for one another. They also take to heart the notion of tikkun olam — that they are responsible for healing the world. For these women and many other synagogue volunteers, gemilut hasadim are not optional. Acts of loving kindness are requirements of a Jew. And yet our synagogues often fail to practice these same principles.

We need to change our pattern of volunteer engagement. Jill Friedman Fixler of JFFixler and Associates, a nationally recognized expert in the field of volunteer engagement says, “Volunteering is not a life sentence!” One of the first steps in changing our pattern is to think of volunteering proactively rather then reactively. Synagogues generally find or agree to the project first without knowing if they have a pool of willing and able workers from whom they can choose. No other business or non-profit functions this way. Why should synagogues?

A major step in this proactive model is learning about the skills and talents of synagogue members. The church world has embraced this model using terms like gifts discernment or spiritual gifts inventory. In many of these congregations, every member goes through a process of interviews and training to discern their personal gifts. This often happens with new members when they join the congregation. For some this is an intense process of introspection, deciding what their gifts are and how those might best be used for their congregation. For others it is a simple matter of filling out a form that list their interests or hobbies. The next important and vital step is to record the information in a database that makes the information readily accessible.

Here is an example of how the process might work. The synagogue’s teen group is planning a project to clean up a block of one of the city’s neglected neighborhoods. The education director sees this as a great opportunity to recruit new teen group members by recording the teens “in action.” She needs someone to videotape the day and then edit the piece into a promotional and educational video. How would most synagogues handle this project? First, they might solicit someone like one of our congregational stalwarts in the playground scenario. Of course, they would readily agree. While they may own a video camera, the resulting finished video is, shall we say, of questionable quality! The other option often sought is to hire a professional to do the project. The quality is first-rate, but so is the cost.

The final scenario, and the one I suggest here, is to consult your database of volunteers (which of course, you have been collecting for the last many years!). With a few short keystrokes you discover that while Joe now works as an attorney, he worked as a videographer for his college television station while he was an undergraduate. He is still an avid amateur video maven and a prime candidate for your project. Joe has never volunteered for anything in the synagogue before but he quickly agrees after receiving a personal phone call from the committee chair. Up until now, no one has asked him to help the synagogue before and he is thrilled to receive this personal invitation. It is clear that this is a time-limited project. He can complete it in a few days. It will not interfere with his hectic work and family schedule. The final product is polished and professional, cost was minimal, and the congregation has enlisted the support of a new volunteer.

There are tangible benefits for synagogues with this proactive model. Synagogues can increase member engagement and create a culture of service and involvement. Since the synagogue has ready access to the skills that congregants are willing to give, volunteers are more likely to repeat their service to the congregation.  Their initial experience with volunteer service was a great one and they now trust the process.

Synagogues need to begin seeing volunteers as gifts to the congregation. Many congregants want to be more active in the life of their synagogue. Some are afraid of setting a precedent – if I volunteer for this project they’ll never stop calling. Others simply do not know how to become more involved and are embarrassed to ask. Successful volunteerism is a proactive venture, not a passive one.

Entry filed under: Judaism, Synagogue Studies. Tags: , , .

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