Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Celebrating Volunteers

People who review our strategic plan often assume that our goal regarding "increas(ing) opportunities for everyone in Vermont to experience and/or participate in the arts" is limited to helping those who want to become painters, actors, musicians, dancers, writers, poets, filmmakers, composers, etc.

While serving these needs is an important part of what we do, the goal has a much larger mandate.

We certainly want to create a vibrant lifestyle in Vermont in which any and all efforts that result in creative activities, whether in a classroom, living room, gallery, or performing arts center are valued and applauded. But we also want to nurture a Vermont in which those who are not inclined to "be" an artist, are nevertheless encouraged to learn how to appreciate and value and experience the work of those who are so inclined.

One can experience art in a variety of ways, but for the sake of brevity, I will only list four: the performer/artist who (re)creates the artistic experience; the audience-member who reacts to the artistic experience; the administrator who establishes the most optimal conditions under which the performer/artist and audience-member may (re)create and react most effectively; and, finally, the volunteer whose tasks run the gamut from serving on the front lines of customer service, like parking cars and ushering, to setting an organization's operating policies, including its mission, vision, and strategic plans. None of these experiences are mutually exclusive--in fact in many of our most vibrant organizations and artists serve as administrators and volunteers and vice versa.

Volunteers are the lifeblood of not-for-profits. In Vermont's arts sector, they are what keep the doors of our several-hundred arts organizations open. They are the "keepers of the flame," the holders of the collective institutional (and even community) memory. They step in when paid administrators burn out. They protect and sustain their communities' cultural assets because those assets belong to them more than to any others. They "own" them emotionally and psychologically.

With notable exceptions (the amazing ushers, for example, who receive their 20-, 30-, or even 40-year pins!) even volunteers can burn out. They do so for a variety of reasons, but for the last several years I've begun hearing about a disturbing trend--fewer young people than ever are stepping into the shoes of those who retire or move away.

Part of this trend is the result of our economy. More people in the work-force than ever, and more people looking for work (due to the downturn), have resulted in the creation of a huge disincentive for people to volunteer.

But I think there is also a sociological reason for this trend. "Leisure time entertainment" has dramatically increased in the past 15 years, offering tantalizing--and enormously time-consuming--alternatives to young people who might otherwise have volunteered. Television was intrusive enough when I was a kid. But kids today have computers, hand-helds, ipod touches, wiis, and other addictive tech toys. Even worse, a significant amount of this type of entertainment is geared towards (and is largely responsible for) the short attention span of Gen-Xers, Millenials, and other cohorts who often feel antipathy towards art forms that require any kind of sustained concentration. Thus, even if one is fortunate enough to attract young volunteers to give their time and energy to an arts activity, there's a good chance that the art form itself will hold limited appeal for them. While many still volunteer because it is the least expensive way to experience a play or an opera, or an opening, it is my fear that fewer and fewer people are volunteering for that reason.

So I'm curious. Why do people--particularly young people--volunteer in this day and age?

One reason is perhaps in response to an ideological call for public service, like the White House's recent United We Serve program. But there are other good reasons to volunteer--as Dear Abby is quick to reassure her readers. Meeting people with similar interests (social networking in person--what a concept!) is a great reason to volunteer. Professional networking is another (spending quality face time with the director of an organization as a volunteer is even better than getting a killer recommendation from your favorite college professor, I promise). Also, professionals often volunteer their services as lawyers, accountants, or management consultants simply because they receive huge psychological and social rewards for doing so.

Of all the reasons to volunteer, however, the most important for me is the degree to which doing so creates a shared sense of community. Yes, social networking is certainly part of that. But volunteering--if only for an hour or two a month--offers a glimpse into what makes a community--YOUR community--tick. This is a community benefit--not just a personal benefit.

There are hundreds of opportunities in Vermont to volunteer, especially during the summer. Almost any not-for-profit needs your help. But I'm speaking now on behalf of all Vermont cultural organizations--from historical societies to opera houses, libraries to festivals.

We all need your help. Our participation in the Lake Champlain Quad Celebration (which, yes, needs its own volunteers) offers lots of opportunities to participate (or experience, if you prefer) the arts. The first is at puzzlePalooza where we need help putting together a Guinness Book of World Records-setting jigsaw puzzle, the second is at the parade during which we need people to represent the more than 190 Vermont towns who have participated in Art Fits Vermont (the puzzle project). Both are on July 11th. Click here for information.

Volunteering locally is really only a matter of making one phone call, or visiting one website. Simple, really.

And for you newcomers to the volunteering "scene," there's one other thing that any old-timer will tell you: wear comfortable shoes.

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