Monday, January 30, 2012

Collecting Good Deed Experiences

Last week's NY Times Education had a thoughtful piece by Neal Gabler, a prof at SUNY Stony Brook, on how the pressure on college-age kids to super-achieve places social progress as a poor second to individual perfection in their life goals. To quote Gabler: "There is a big difference between a culture that encourages engagement with the world and one that encourages developing one's own superiority". Anyone who viewed 'Margin Call', the recent and provocative Hollywood movie story about Wall Street perfidy, will get his point - the film's populated with grown-up super-ego products of fine universities.

The compulsion that Gabler refers to of adding to great grades from the best schools with a long list of other activities that point to the students' always-on capacity for success in life, seems to me to infect many well-off folk in their later years who also seem to rack up trips to underprivileged spots to do social work or save ecosystems. Face Book entries, blog posts and round-robin e-mails from friends and former colleagues heading off to points distant to help out the less fortunate ensure we stay-behinds know all there is to know about their achievements.

All this bragging material from whizzing around the globe can make it hard for us lesser mortals to feel good about vegetating. You know - taking it mostly easy after a life of  'making our contribution' working long hours and sitting on many planes. Loafing on the back porch with a beer, reading in a hammock or refilling the bird feeders, all are coming to seem a form of deplorable mindlessness. Try countering tales of long and daring trips to provide aid to far-off charities with stories of your occasional stirrings to perform local good deeds. Just doesn't have the same cachet.

HG Wells postulated a future where humanity divides into meek underachievers and aggressive top-dogs;  maybe it'll be more like Zoomers and Loafers when it comes to the Great Score Card in Cyberspace.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Volunteering as a Wise Owl

2011 is gone and volunteer organizations are contemplating what they can deliver in a 2012 that looks to be an equal economic and social challenge.  As my career began to wind down a few years back, I thought I'd try volunteering outside my previous focus on professional groups relevant to my then-working life. Us Oldies often read that we should now be 'giving back', yet many of us who are outside the now-diminishing net of fat corporate pensions have seen our savings take a beating. Our charity is of necessity now given as in-kind labour when before cash donations were the norm.

The public service has always relied in part on the efforts of community volunteers to inform its activities. With diminished revenues government is relying more than ever on unpaid help. While there are more people reaching the age when they have the time to contribute than in years past, many of us fret over spending time on potentially frustrating non-billable activities as we contemplate living beyond our nest eggs. One consequence of this is that we may exercise more care than in the past in deciding just who exactly will benefit from the windfall of our availability, especially now that the web provides a vehicle to explore the performance of potential recipients of our volunteer time.

Myself I've tried out several forms of volunteer persona for fit. The first to receive the blessing of my insights was a regional charity working to create awareness of substance abuse in high school students. While I once had a personal connection to this problem, one I'm glad to say is long over,  this proved largely unused on a board usually ignored by the charity's CEO and founder, a feature of charity boards that I hear is all too common. So I moved on to an altogether sunnier option, the board of a charity owning a key nature educational reserve in Costa Rica. Since I wasn't really likely to travel down into Caribbean swamps to see things on the front line, this proved a short-lived experiment. Next I thought let's volunteer for an association that I know well as a member so there'd be no surprises.  Invited to observe the executive committee in action I discovered a small cabal ran things with an eye to ensuring nothing happened that couldn't be accessed by public transport. As a dweller in an area without such an amenity yet one in which potential new members with the right ethnocultural creds are widespread, I had to decline.

I 'd run out of ideas until a chance conversation at a nearby country gathering with a municipal heritage employee had me recalling that I'd once been on a heritage buildings evening course and even read a few books on the subject.