Earlier this year I was accused of worming my way into positions of power and influence. ‘Accused’ in the sense that the observation was not meant as a compliment. As there’s a lot of truth in it, I thought it might be productive to expose my methods and philosophy, and the outcomes. Much of what I do could be done by anyone with a mind to do it, and there is certainly both the need and the space, although I’m by no means the only person working in this kind of way.
I look for groups, events, organisations and individuals who I think are doing something valuable but show signs of needing more help. I choose based on where I can most usefully give help, what most interests me, and what I think will do most good. I move on when the job is done, or I’m bored, or think something else is more important, and suchlike. My primary aim is that there be more good stuff.
I rock up and offer to help. I take on jobs that aren’t fun, glamorous or self promoting – I steward, tidy up, pick stones out of allotments, litter pick, paint fences. I also offer my particular skills – public speaking, blogging, writing, marketing, networking, media, creative thinking, performing, organising… and other things. One of the consequences of doing this over many years is that I know a lot of awesome people who are willing to pile in and do things, and who are working in gift economy and favour exchange, and who can be asked, and awesome people who can be booked.
Often what I do is put awesome people in touch with each other, resulting in more awesome, and more scope to do this sort of thing. I spend a lot of time working for free, on things I believe in. I get the pleasure of seeing things work. Sometimes there are direct personal benefits – opportunities are created, sometimes paying work comes off the back of volunteering, or other scope for self advancement. I am not ashamed of this, and actively encourage anyone doing good stuff to accept the gifts and favours that come with working in a gift economy. It’s easiest to grow good things when people are generous but not self-sacrificing. Work that is entirely about giving is hard to sustain and more likely to burn people out.
This is not a career strategy by any conventional standards, but I have to say that work-wise, Tom and I benefit greatly from this way of doing things. Favours become opportunities. Helping out creates enduring networks of friends. We make valuable contacts. More good stuff happening means more good stuff for us to be part of. We greatly enjoy what we get to do.
If you are interested in exploring this way of working, then you need to be clear about your goals – not in the sense of personal achievement, more what you want to invest in to see more of. You need to know what your skills and strengths are and not be afraid to offer them as things of worth. There is always more that needs doing than there are people willing to do it, so once you get started, you have to be mindful of what’s sustainable because people will ask you to do more (I’ve messed up repeatedly on that score).
There are of course people who will look at this work, and these groups, events etc and see the scope for a power base, and who will want the power base, not the ‘more good stuff’ or the effort of doing the work. They can be an obstacle to productively getting things done. Where there’s a lot of ego, the scope for good stuff is greatly reduced, while the likely effort required increases. People who want to be important can be jealous of people who are effective at getting things done, and the results are seldom pretty. The best places to volunteer are where the people running things are intent on ‘more good stuff’ and not self aggrandisement, and the best volunteers to take on are those who are far more excited about the work, than about the scope for personal advancement.
Fully taking over, I should note, tends to mean carrying the legal, financial and practical responsibility for a thing, and that’s not as much fun as it sounds.