Using Tension Well: From Comfort to Hospitality

Picture of young couple swing dancing on a cement wall
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In his latest book, The Practice1, Seth Godin shares a distinction between comfort and hospitality, compliments of his colleague Marie Schacht. Schacht defines comfort as “reassurance, soft edges, and an elimination of tension”. Hospitality, by contrast, is “welcoming people, seeing them, and understanding what they need” (p. 53).

Defining comfort as the elimination of tension struck me. Partly because eliminating tension seems to be a by-product of niceness in volunteerism. Partly because actively using tension can lead to positive change on adaptive issues like the ones driving many nonprofits.

We have some reckoning to do with our approach to tension in nonprofits and volunteerism.  

A lot of service opportunities (especially one-time and short-term) design for volunteer comfort. We reassure volunteers that their time and contributions are needed and even go so far as to call their service heroic. We soften the edges of hard issues like poverty and hunger and educational gaps so volunteers can leave feeling good about their work. Sometimes we prioritize the interests—and comfort—of the volunteers over the needs and dignity of the people being served. In short, the nonprofit sector has been known to sanitize the tension from the experience of community.*  

That approach may not serve our organizations or the volunteers. Researchers Lacy McNamee and Brittany Peterson2 examined the tensions inherent in volunteer engagement, such as communicating the positive features of service while orienting volunteers to the less pleasant aspects in advance, all without scaring prospects away. One of their conclusions was that it was not “sustainable nor constructive” to try to eliminate or bypass tension. Rather, a more productive approach included “coping with, accepting, and even embracing” tension (p. 16).

Working with tension figures prominently in adaptive leadership recommendations as well. Adaptive leadership includes regulating distress and maintaining sufficient tension to hold a group’s attention. Leaders focus this attention on tough issues, even when (and often, precisely because) it’s uncomfortable. Indeed, Godin suggests that allowing for discomfort “engages people, keeps them on their toes, and makes them curious” (p. 53).

As If My Job Wasn’t Hard Enough Already…

Making volunteers uncomfortable may sound like a steep price to pay for a bit of engagement and curiosity. In fact, Godin predicts that actively working with tension will likely generate our own discomfort.

Why take that on? We lament that it’s hard enough to get and keep volunteers. Perhaps we’ve billed volunteering as fun and easy, which doesn’t exactly include space for tension. Maybe the folks leading our volunteer projects don’t have the experience or skills (or desire) to facilitate conversations that might get uncomfortable. And besides, “our” volunteers aren’t looking for that kind of thing.

The better question may be: how can we not take that on?

If we omit tension and discomfort, how will we fully engage with the issues that volunteering addresses? How will we reconcile the need for volunteers with the feel-good experiences we have served up? (And what about the prospective volunteers who are looking for exactly that kind of thing?)

After all, it’s not about us. It’s about the community and the mission.

Making the Most of the Volunteer Encounter

Volunteering offers a space rich with potential. It is a unique third place within the community. It invites us beyond our bubbles and echo chambers. As such, the space is ripe for a “new form of hospitality—of helping people change by taking them somewhere new” (Godin, 2021, p. 53).

What’s more, the kind of change our communities need requires ongoing and sometimes deep participation. One-time volunteers can provide meals, but they can’t address the causes of hunger by packing food boxes alone. Episodic volunteers can beautify parks, but they can’t reverse climate change by picking up trash or removing non-native species a few times a year. That doesn’t negate the value of these activities, it just means that they are only one slice of the civic engagement pie.

My concern is this: if we allow volunteers to leave intervention-based service feeling like heroes or as if they have checked the box for “doing their part”, we fail to use our encounter with them fully. They aren’t introduced to the complexity of our causes or the ways that they can engage further with it. We hoard our knowledge about the long-term work that is needed in advocacy and policy and how volunteers can use their voices. We prevent them from understanding how deeper service can address the root issues that make volunteering necessary. Avoiding hard conversations might keep volunteers (and us) happy, but it is an impediment to the adaptive mission work we are called to do.

Tension as a Force for Good

We tend to label tension as negative, but there are plenty of examples where tension is necessary and good. When I learned to swing dance, one of the first lessons was to maintain tension in the hold. Too little tension and there wasn’t enough energy to create movement. Too much and it could cause injuries. So it is with leadership and volunteerism. Here are a few ideas for finding the right level of tension in service.

  • Start a conversation with volunteers. Somehow the reflection that’s core to service learning and youth service seems to fall by the wayside for most adult volunteering. Volunteer Houston has reclaimed it by building in time for education and critical reflection with their corporate partner projects. Even simple questions can invite thoughtful discussion by participants. Why did they volunteer? What did they learn? Did anything surprise them? What action do they want to take next?  

    Other organizations are adding a justice or power lens to these conversations. Check out Cambridge Volunteer Clearinghouse, which offers sessions about power and positionality in service. Explore Minnesota Alliance for Volunteer Advancement’s (MAVA) workshops on how to facilitate service that sees and welcomes the community in all of its diverse manifestations. Points of Light hosts panels on race and equity in volunteerism (and beyond).
  • Challenge unproductive norms. Adaptive leadership principles give us permission to question the way things have always been done. For example, you might educate prospective volunteer groups that are focused on their own needs to see the big picture, especially when their interests are harmful. Redirect them to activities that meet client needs with dignity. Assess the language used to describe volunteers and service. Maybe rewarding or meaningful are a better way to brand service than fun (which isn’t to say that volunteering can’t be fun). Calling volunteers neighbors rather than heroes can help recalibrate power dynamics.
  • Start (or join) a conversation with peers. This year, I have benefited greatly from Zoom calls with local peers and being part of The Renewed community that Breauna Dorelus guides online. Both offer brave space for talking about privilege and race and radical hospitality in service. They help me navigate ways to name and work with tension. More importantly, they support me in translating ideas into actions (and blogs).
  • Increase your tolerance for discomfort (if your privilege allows you to be comfortable most of your life). In Dare to Lead4, Brene Brown shared an observation that the intense discomfort she experiences from taking a stand typically lasts eight seconds. In my own experience, I find that the more I step out of my comfort zone, the easier it gets, even if the nerves and fear never fully go away. We can do hard things.**

It’s tempting to want to bypass tension and emphasize the positive aspects of service. Unfortunately, that would mean giving up one of the best tools we have to effect change. When used well, tension gives us the energy to cultivate connection and get things done in community. It generates insight into what is ours to do. It helps us stay the course.

How can we not take that on?

* When I talk about comfort, I am referencing the kind of psychological comfort that comes from protecting volunteer feelings from anything other than positive experiences. I don’t mean to suggest that we should make volunteers jump through unnecessary hoops or withhold information that would help them perform their roles or tasks.

** That said, I also appreciate that my identities and privilege (like my whiteness, education, years in the field, etc.) afford me more of a buffer to take these actions. Ron Heifetz5 points out that practicing adaptive leadership can be dangerous. He suggests survival strategies such as pacing the work, engaging confidants and allies, framing the issue through the mission and/or client, and separating self from role. In some cases, it may be necessary to leave the situation.


1 Godin, S. (2020). The practice: Shipping creative work. Portfolio/Penguin.

2 McNamee, L. G., & Peterson, B. L. (2014). Reconciling “third space/place”: Toward a

            complementary dialectical understanding of volunteer management. Management

            Communication Quarterly, 1-30.doi:10.1177/0893318914525472

3 Parker, P. (2018). The art of gathering: How we meet and why it matters. Riverhead Books.

4 Brown, B. (2018.) Dare to lead. Vermilion.

5 Heifetz, R. (1998). Leadership without easy answers. Harvard University Press.

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