Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Jon Bon Jovi and Polo Ralph Lauren want to make volunteerism "hip". New Operating System Needed.

From August 3-6 I attended the National Conference on Volunteerism and Service, held in Washington, DC. I attended wearing my hat of Commissioner for the Illinois Commission on Volunteerism and Community Service. In that role, I focus on building volunteer recruitment and support strategies that help solve problems in all parts of Illinois. However, I draw from my 30 years of leading a volunteer-based tutor/mentor program when I advocate for a new operating system to support volunteer-based charities.

A new operating system focuses on the infrastructure needed for successful charities. It spreads the responsibility for the success of the non profit organization to all people who benefit. In the current structure the burden for keeping a charity afloat is generally limited to the efforts of the charity and its board of directors. While this works for some programs, it is a poor system to assure an even distribution of critically needed services in all places where they are needed.

Through the Tutor/Mentor Connection (T/MC), I'm trying to create this new operating system, drawing from the help of volunteers of Cabrini Connections, and a network of other program leaders and stakeholders from throughout Chicago and the rest of the world. I'm trying to create a visual blueprint that identifies all of the things a tutor/mentor program needs to be successful. Since our goal is that our teens are starting jobs/careers by age 25, this infrastructure needs to enable us to provide continuous support to some youth for 10-15 years!

Here are some of the key elements that a new operating system would need to address:

a) development of key staff who treat their work as an avocation, not a job, and who have been trained via college or years of experience in the concepts of Total Quality Mentoring. It took me more than 30 years of leading a tutor/mentor program, plus 17 years of being a national advertising manager in a large retail corporation, to learn what I know. When new people join us they need to have learned this via formal training. It takes too long to learn from on-the-job experiences

b) more consistent public awareness (advertising) - When I was an advertising manager at Montgomery Ward (between 1973 and 1990) I was responsible for drafting an annual ad schedule that provided 3 waves of ads going out each week to nearly 20 million people in 40 states where Montgomery Ward had stores. Each ad had the same goal of drawing customers to stores near them.

Wards spent more than $200 million each year on its national advertising during the 1980s. Charities don't have these type of ad dollars and never will. Thus we need strategies in business, churches, colleges and professional groups, and among media and celebrities, that use their resources to build on-going visibility for volunteer-based charities. Jon Bon Jovi was a speaker at last week's conference on volunteerism. Just recently he helped organize the Live8 Concert. We need more people to do what he's doing. Someone needs to be doing a Live8 type event every day! However, we also need to teach leaders and celebrities to put links on their web sites that point potential volunteers and donors to volunteer centers so that they can find the programs that are looking for help.

c) flexible funding - if we cannot find the funds to create decent working conditions and to recruit and retain highly motivate and skilled people, we'll end with high turn over, which works against the first objective of retaining key staff. Instead of every tutor/mentor program in the city constantly searching for funds, we need to develop business type advertising strategies that motivate donors to seek out programs on a more consistent basis. One strategy is to find a way to put tutor/mentor programs in workplace fund raising campaigns. Another is find ways to increase planned giving bequests to tutor/mentor programs, or to organizations like the Chicago Bar Association's Lend A Hand Program, which distributes grants to tutor/mentor programs.

d) talent volunteers - one of the workshops at the National Conference focused on the concept of Talent Volunteers. The presenters showed how most volunteer recruitment advertising focuses on the soft side of volunteerism. This conveys a message that you either become a tutor/mentor or do some other form of hands-on project, or you don't volunteer. While we need dedicated people to volunteer time as tutors/mentors, we also need people to volunteer time as accountants, planners, communicators, tech support, fund raisers, etc. If we can recruit more people to help build the infrastructure of tutor/mentor programs we can expand the support for staff, students and volunteers and come closer to achieving our goals. Imagine the National Mentoring Month campaign being "Who built your web site? instead of "Who mentored you?"

e) elearning/collaboration mentality - there is so little time to network and learn from others, yet is it this process of constantly learning from others that leads to on-going quality improvement. Very few organizations are building this into their strategy. While there were over 2,000 people in Washington last week, most of us only met a few of these people, or attended a few of the workshops being offered. I was in a forum hosted by David Eisner, President of the Corporation for National Service, and Bob Goodwin, President of the Points of Light Foundation. While a few people got to ask questions, most did not. If the discussion had also had an internet component, such as at or, many of us could have continued to ask questions and network with each other in the weeks and months after the conference. Until we learn to link the Internet with our face-to-face strategies, we will not maximize the potential we have to mobilize the army of volunteers, and donors, who are needed to solve problems and strengthen America.

f) spatial thinking - we need to teach people to use maps to show all of the places in big cities like Chicago where tutor/mentor programs are needed, and where existing programs are located. Without the map most cities focus on just a few programs, or a few neighborhoods. This means most kids do not have access to services and most programs are constantly struggling to stay in business. We also need charts and blueprints that show all of the different ways volunteers can be involved in a charity, and the continuous support kids need, from many people, to be starting jobs and careers by age 25.

While I share this information with tutor/mentor leaders around the country, I also share it with the volunteers in the tutor/mentor program I lead in Chicago ( Many of the volunteers we recruited for Cabrini Connections between 1993 and today have offered time and talent and treasure to help us build the services we offer through the Tutor/Mentor Connection. If volunteers from one small program can have this much of an impact, my belief is that hundreds of volunteers from dozens of connected programs can have an even greater impact. My goal is that other volunteer-based organizations adopt this "we" instead of me strategy. It's the only way we will ever get enough people together to build the better operating system that I dream of.

While one of the featured speakers at the National Conference was Jon Bon Jovi, another was David Lauren of Both men talked about making volunteerism "hip". Bon Jovi said it was his goal to make volunteerism "the new Black". Polo Jeans has launched a product and ad campaign that converts this vision to action. I went back to Chicago and told my daughter that she could buy her Back to School Jeans at Polo, even though they might cost more, because I want to support this campaign. That's the only way we can motivate hundreds of other companies to duplicate the thinking behind this campaign.

These are all just my opinions. We're trying to make this vision a reality through the work we do in the Tutor/Mentor Connection and at Cabrini Connections. If you agree with these opinions, join us. If you disagree, post your ideas on a web site and let us take a look at your strategy. We can improve what we do if we can learn from you. You can improve what you do if you can learn from us and from other organizations that operate the same way. If you know of other companies who are even more effective than Polo Jeans in making volunteerism "hip" and in drawing attention to volunteer-based organizations, please add the web site link to the new Tutor/Mentor Connection portal.

Daniel F. Bassill
President, Cabrini Connections, Tutor/Mentor Connection

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