Trading Measurement for Witnessing

People seated beneath trees listening to a waterfall in a New York City pocket park.

Three years ago, I facilitated a session about capturing volunteer impact in Manhattan. We discussed connecting volunteer contributions to the organization mission. I encouraged the group to think about capturing volunteer impact instead of measuring it since so much of what volunteers offer doesn’t show up in numbers. The participants teamed up to match volunteer value indicators to different audiences. We pored through worksheets and lists of volunteer value indicators generated from research to support the work beyond the workshop. It was a thoughtful and engaged group, but we all left knowing that demonstrating volunteer value is an ongoing challenge.

As I was packing up, one of the Volunteer Managers shared a story. She talked about how one of their patients joined the community day center after experiencing two strokes and early dementia. He showed up every day but kept to himself. One day, however, he sat down at the piano in the common room and began playing a beautiful song. The music inspired another participant to start dancing. Everyone within earshot stopped what they were doing and found their way to the room to take in the music and the talent that no one had known the gentleman had. It was a simple, yet profound moment. Everyone who experienced it felt the impact.

After the session, I had some free time and found myself in Central Park. The trees were full and leafy, the grass soft and lush. Summer was in full swing and the air itself seemed tinged with green. I parked myself on a bench and soaked in the scene. Families on vacation, joggers and skaters and dog walkers, workers on a lunch break. It was a beautiful day with perfect weather, a delightful spot to exhale after two busy days spent mostly inside.

Afterward, I squeezed in a visit to the Museum of Modern Art. I pressed into the crowd around Van Gogh’s Starry Nights and then meandered among the other paintings that I could enjoy all by myself. Matisse’s View of Notre Dame caught my eye. In contrast to the other works, it was unfinished. He left elements of his early detailing visible beneath the paint “accentuating the temporal quality of constructing a work of art over time”. He offered insight into the creative process, revealing the painstaking steps along the way.

Waterfall in NYC pocket park surrounded by trees and vines.

My day ended journaling in a pocket park. Though I was mere steps from the bustle and noise of 51st Street, it all melted away, muted by the sounds of the waterfall and birds chirping. It was still and cool beneath the trees, my park companions working a crossword, reading a book, or watching the water in motion. Such a small area yet such a spacious feeling of respite.

Which is all to say that we can spend a lot of time generating indicators and perfecting measurement. But some forms of impact will resist our attempts to count and corral it. Sometimes the best we can do is to witness it. And be grateful to be present to its mystery.

With thanks to Sheryl Parker for the invitation to teach about indicators while also understanding that life and volunteerism and community are about more than neat, discrete indicators.


  1. Hi Sue,
    One of the reasons volunteer impact is so much harder to capture vs measure is that most of us are not the writer that you are!
    Thank you for another great essay on an important topic.

    April 16, 2021
    • Thanks, Laurie. Hoping that my writing can offer permission and space for us to talk about the important work we see volunteers doing without feeling constrained to share that work only in “acceptable” ways, like numbers alone. I appreciate the work you are doing to tell a fuller story about volunteers.

      April 16, 2021

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *