Handing in the Volunteer Cape

Silver cape covering a silver costume. Both are hanging on a black metal clothing rack.
Photo by Ksenia Chernaya on Pexels.com

I just finished reading Fr. Gregory Boyle’s Barking to the Choir. The following sentence hooked me and wouldn’t let go. “We always seem to be faced with this choice: to save the world or savor it. I want to propose that savoring is better, and that when we seek to ‘save’ and ‘contribute’ and ‘give back’ and ‘rescue’ folks and EVEN ‘make a difference’, then it is all about you…and the world stays stuck….The good news, of course, is that when we choose to ‘savor’ the world, it gets saved. Don’t set out to change the world. Set out to wonder how people are doing (p. 174-5).”

This certainly hits a nerve with me personally and professionally as someone who works with staff and volunteers and partners wanting to do all these things. Fr. Boyle goes on to point out that “before things become mutually beneficial at the margins, they need to be mutually relational” (p. 182), which echoes activist Bryan Stevenson’s call to get proximate with others. Neither of these postures benefits from a wearing a cape.

Reframing Service and Volunteers

This is a fundamental reframing of service, particularly project-based service. Volunteer projects that are plug-and-play-and-walk-away can meet a need but they rarely are relational. That’s often the appeal. They allow us to do “community” on our own terms and without entanglement. Yet true community asks us to show up and keep showing up, even when it isn’t convenient or easy or fun. Which makes me wonder how project-based service can be a bridge or portal to community.

Letting go of our notions of saving the world is also a reframing of how we talk about volunteers. How often do we call volunteers heroes and position them as saving someone or at least saving the day? That puts the volunteer at the center of the experience and high up on a pedastal. It throws off the dynamics of community where we all show up with strengths and flaws, contributions and needs. Which makes me wonder how wearing a cape gets in the way of community.


I’m also thinking about what it means for me to be mutually relational. How am I showing up in community? Where am I wearing a cape and missing the mark? How does mutual relationship show up in my work about volunteer impact and volunteer purpose…and corporate volunteering, which I posted about on LinkedIn? How do we create conditions for mutual relationship or right relationship in nonprofits when our organizations are rarely structured for it (and are often structured against it)?

No recommendations this time, just the questions I am holding.


  1. Gretchen Jordan, CVA said:

    I’m thinking about how much I like things when they are two-way and how less exhausted I’d be if only I could hang up the cape. Experimenting with short times and letting go to see what happens. Thanks for the thoughts, Sue.

    February 2, 2024
    • Good point, Gretchen. Being in saving mode is draining and makes us prone to burn out. Two-way, reciprocal engagement seems more sustainable – we carry community together. I like your approach of trying on a different approach in bite-size pieces and reflecting.

      February 2, 2024
  2. Annette Shaff-Palmer said:

    I appreciate this re-frame as I hear from non profits that the “need” more volunteers and volunteers aren’t showing up. What are we doing as volunteer test professionals to create a community of volunteerism within our agency where people see how they can give/interact/ contribute without giving everything?? Great questions.

    February 6, 2024
    • Thanks for adding to the conversation, Annette. I like the notion of cultivating community within our agencies. It gets us away from treating volunteering as a transaction or ‘consuming’ our volunteers and their time.

      February 8, 2024

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