A Few of My Favorite Books: Volunteerism-Related Reading

Leather couches with red pillows next to bookshelves facing a fireplace

There’s nothing quite so satisfying as finding the right book at the right time. Here are a few books that found me when I was ready for them. They show up frequently in my thinking, writing, and facilitating. Most of them are not about volunteer engagement per se. However, they all deepened or expanded my thinking of volunteerism and community.

This thought-provoking book was an invitation and challenge into deeper, more nourishing forms of community. The author asks, “What does it really mean to be in deep, close community? What form does it take? Who is included and why? How much of my life do I have to let go of to make room for the kinds of relationships I want? How far and deep must the reach of my heart extend” (p. 12)?

Ms. Birdsong explorations are about big questions of community. Her book made me think about the ways I engage (or not) in community. It also helped me take a bigger picture view of volunteerism as a vehicle for cultivating community.

In addition to purpose, she wants us to “assume (our) proper powers as a host” because “to gather people is an exercise in power” (p. 74). Therefore, to bring the community together as volunteers is a kind of power. What do we do with that power? How do we guide and influence the group and the time that people have elected to spend with us? Many folks get a little queasy at the mention of power. Ms. Parker reframes it well though. She says that guests (volunteers!) are longing for guidance when they have been invited into something. It is part of our job to provide that guidance.

I happened across this book while working on my dissertation that focused on the value that volunteers bring to their organization. I was deep in the academic literature, which leaned heavily on economic concepts to describe value. However, that language didn’t match the experiences of volunteering I had witnessed through my life and career. Dr. Wall Kimmerer, an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, offered a different language when she introduced me to gift economies.

“That is the fundamental nature of gifts: they move, and their value increases with their passage. … The more something is shared, the greater its value becomes. This is hard to grasp for societies steeped in notions of private property, where others are, by definition, excluded from sharing” (p.27). Her stories illustrate gift economies in action. They offer a framework and language that are better matches for what happens in volunteer engagement.

This book can get dense but may be for you if you like to nerd out on that sort of thing.

Notions of the commons strike me as a cousin to gift economies. A commons is a shared resource, a community, and the collective agreements the community co-creates to manage the resource for everyone’s benefit (pp. 15-19). Though most nonprofits are subject to market pressures, the commons can help us remember the essential, community-based elements of our work.

Mr. Bollier argues that “the commons is rich with all sorts of unmeasured, qualitative, and particular types of value. Our urgent challenge is to find better ways to protect the integrity of the commons and the value they quietly produce” (p. 78). I might add that an urgent challenge for volunteer engagement is to highlight and amplify the unmeasured and qualitative contributions of volunteers.  

This final book is written for a faith-based audience about radical welcome in Episcopal church congregations. However, it offers many applications for volunteer engagement, too. Many agencies, for example, are acknowledging “who is not at the table” when it comes to volunteering. Canon Spellers takes it a step further though. She asks, “Who would never even come to the door because they are so sure we will not receive them, because, historically, we have not? (p. 72)”

Her questions and recommendations are especially timely as agencies wonder how to diversify their volunteer corps. She shifts the focus from how to get “different” people in the agency to how to adapt agency practices so they are more inviting to a broader swath of the community. That entails a willingness to grow and change alongside the community. No small task, but certainly a worthy aspiration.

Have you read any of the above? What are your thoughts? What have you read that stretched your thinking about volunteer engagement or community?

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