Right Relationship in Volunteerism

Open gate into a garden of wildflowers and a small cottage
Image by congerdesign from Pixabay

Right relationship keeps surfacing in what I am reading and journaling, but I have struggled to sort it out in a blog related to volunteer engagement. It seemed like an appropriate time to remember this blog is a sandbox for experimentation and community conversation.

One of the stumbling blocks was that I felt like I needed a definition for right relationship before I could write about it. I came across a definition on a Quaker site and another in the book Right Relationship: Building a Whole Earth Economy. I liked how activist and author adrienne maree brown talked about being in right relationship with the natural world and its processes in Emergent Strategy. She, in turn, drew on Cherokee medicine woman Jasmine Wallace’s description for inspiration. My intrigue grew with each source, but none quite satisfied my growing sense of the concept. I finally got unstuck after reading a blog on radical imagination by Maro Guevara who wrote about the value of letting go of textbook definitions sometimes.  

It got me thinking that spending too much time trying to track down just the right definition might be a distraction from exploring what right relationship means to me. Or letting you discover, experiment, and play with what this big idea means for you and your team.

Exploring Right Relationship in Agencies

Whatever right relationship might mean precisely, it can be a rich portal for thinking about how we engage with the community around us to achieve a mission. It can help re-center the work of our agencies.

  • What does it mean to be in right relationship with our community?
  • How do we know when we are in right relationship? What does it look and feel like? What are the markers?
  • Who are our communities? How do communities differ from audiences or stakeholders (or do they)? What are our responsibilities when we are in community?
  • What would it mean to be in right relationship with the people we serve? Are we currently? (What would they say?)
  • How does the principle of right relationship help guide efforts to be more inclusive and equitable?
  • What happens when being in right relationship with one community diminishes our relationship with another community?
  • How might we define right relationship in our organization or department?
Exploring Right Relationship in Volunteerism

There also are intriguing possibilities for applying right relationship to volunteerism.

  • How would we design volunteer involvement in our organization if it were guided by being in right relationship with those we serve?
    • For example, would the people we serve replicate the traditional (or virtual) roles we offer?
    • Do our volunteer opportunities provide a chance for those we serve to give as well as receive?
    • How does volunteering tap into the strengths and needs of those we serve along with the strengths and needs of volunteers?
  • How would we design volunteer involvement in our organization if it were guided by being in right relationship with volunteers?
    • What would initial contacts with prospective volunteers entail? How would we get to know each other and discover mutual talents and interests?
    • What would communication with volunteers look like? How would we share important organization information? How would volunteers share important observations or lessons learned from their experiences? Where is the space for dialogue?
    • What would gratitude and appreciation look like? How would we bear witness to the collective accomplishments of volunteers and paid staff and participants? Would recognition be built around number of hours contributed?
  • Who are the right people to design an organization’s volunteer involvement if the emphasis is on being in right relationship with all participants?
    • The people served or their families?
    • The volunteers or community partners?
    • The volunteer director or program director?
    • Some combination of the above?
  • Where would volunteer engagement live in the organization if it were based on right relationship?
  • What kind of information or data would demonstrate the practice of right relationship through volunteerism? What might we learn?
So What and Now What?

Asking the questions above opens up volunteerism in a different way for me. It makes me realize that much volunteer engagement defaults to a one-way, top-down system rather than a two-way dialogue with the community about our shared work. It makes me wonder what a more authentic community partnership would look like with shared vision and decision-making. These insights have important implications. For me as a leader, how do I modify my teaching and training about volunteer engagement accordingly? How do these lessons show up in my writing?

In addition, right relationship seems like a generative way to frame efforts to achieve equity. So often, inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility (IDEA) work has a tone of obligation and compliance. Could we show up to it differently if we thought of it as a way to get in right relationship with all of our communities and the people within them?

Yes, I am mindful that approaching volunteer involvement through a practice of right relationship would take a good deal more time and attention than we typically invest in it. That probably is a deal breaker for most organizations. Then again, I have yet to meet an organization that can accomplish its mission with staff alone. Maybe getting in right relationship with those beyond the organization walls (virtual or otherwise) is one of the most worthy and effective ways we can spend our time and attention.

I still don’t have a precise definition for right relationship. What it might mean: give and take, feeling seen and seeing, listening, feeling like I have something to contribute, being able or allowed to contribute, asking for help, making space for others to help, celebrating wins and sharing joy, being present to loss and grief, being accountable, sharing, not being wasteful, saying I’m sorry, forgiving, showing up, offering gratitude. It’s a tall order. Where am I in right relationship now? Where is it a struggle? How might I put these practices in action more often? How do I listen for what right relationship means to others so we can build community together?

What does right relationship mean to you? Could it apply to your mission or community engagement? I’d love to hear about what emerges for you or any examples of what this looks like in practice.

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