Today’s New York Times brought an article by Steve Lohr, “Starting Over, With a Second Career Goal of Changing Society.” It described a new program at Harvard University to repurpose second- or third-career executives into a new life of volunteerism.
Although I’m sure it’s well intentioned this Harvard program is doomed to fail. It ignores the actual phenomenology of volunteering. What cultural, medical and social organizations are looking for is retail volunteers –people who are ready willing and able to interact on a one-on-one basis with the organization’s constituents. The people who work for these organizations – their employees – are completely threatened by the idea of volunteers who are seeking to “leverage” themselves by directing the organization’s efforts.
This is the entire premise of the Harvard program. Participants will “learn how to be successful social entrepreneurs or leaders of nonprofit organizations.” They will “pick up new knowledge, skills and professional relationships in a new realm.” They will “have an impact on major social problems.” I want “orders of magnitude improvement in the efficiency of what I do,” says Charles R. Denham. Thomas J. Tierney says the “issue is how you scale up, how you get a multiplier effect.”
Good luck with this. The only people who can leverage themselves in today’s economic climate are so-called “venture philanthropists” who combine their directive efforts with massive financial contributions
In fact, many of Harvard’s so-called social entrepreneurs seem to have trouble getting off the ground. “I just haven’t figured out the vehicle yet,” said Susan Leal. Hans Ulrich Maerki “has no particular project in mind, but is eager to explore the possibilities.” Vivian Lowery Derryck “spoke to multinational corporations that expressed an interest in contributing.” None of them seem to have done so.
I suspect none of the people mentioned in Mr. Lohr’s article ever have volunteered for anything in their lives. They’d have more of an impact if they stop trying to “leverage themselves” and just go volunteer to do something. There are enough disadvantaged people in today’s society who can use all the help they can get without a bunch of high-income people taking classes at Harvard worrying about how to make the most of themselves.