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September 15
Vernon, British Columbia, Canada

September 16
Langley, British Columbia, Canada

September 19
Wellington, New Zealand

September 20-21
Kapiti Coast, New Zealand

September 22
Wanaka, New Zealand

September 26-29
Auckland, New Zealand

October 3
Kalgoorlie, Western Australia

October 4
Esperance, Western Australia

October 6
Subiaco, Western Australia

October 7
Bass Coast, Victoria, Australia

October 12-13
Sunbury, Victoria, Australia

October 14
Lismore, New South Wales, Australia

October 19-22
Grande Prairie, Alberta, Canada

October 24
High River, Alberta, Canada

October 29
Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

November 7-11

November 15-17
Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

November 29-December 1
The Netherlands







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Recently, I was invited to speak at a conference of not-for-profit organizations on the topic of “How to Recruit More Volunteers.” The conference organizers must have been distressed when I began my remarks by asserting: “What we need is fewer volunteers and more community.” I went on to explain what I see as the difference.

Volunteers are well-intentioned individuals who take time from their daily routine in order to be of service. Community, on the other hand, isn’t a departure from routine. It’s a way of life focused on the common good. A valued community member might welcome strangers, join a time bank, host a block party, shop locally, raise responsible children, carpool to work, plant street trees, coach a youth soccer team, vote, advocate for the homeless, be a buddy to a housebound neighbor, and graciously accept a gift of zucchini from another neighbor’s garden. Few people have the time to engage in so many community activities and everyone’s menu of activities will look different, but whether at work, home, in their neighborhood or the larger world, all people have the opportunity to be welcoming, generous in giving and open to receiving, and act as if their welfare is tied to everyone else’s.  That’s what it means to be in community.

Volunteering tends to be a one-way relationship in which someone is providing services to clients. Those clients are labelled by what they are missing – poor, unemployed, uneducated, homeless, single parent, non-English speaking, at-risk, disabled, etc. With service delivery, there are two classes of people – the volunteers with the gifts and the clients with the needs. In community, we recognize that everyone has both needs and gifts. Community is all about mutual support – meeting one another’s needs with one another’s gifts.

Volunteers often provide services that offer some relief for problems but don’t address the underlying causes. Such was the case with the Ontario Church Ladies who had been volunteering in their local food bank for decades only to see the lines grow ever longer. They finally called a press conference to announce that they were going on strike. Rather than volunteering in the food bank, they were going to join with fellow community members in advocating for social justice.

Ironically, the not-for-profits and other agencies in which people volunteer are inadvertently contributing to the breakdown of the very communities that they claim to support. Agencies are organized into silos defined by each one’s own narrow mission. There are separate silos for the young, old, disabled, refugees, and all sorts of other categories and subcategories of clients. Each client group is assigned its own facilities, programs and services. This way of organizing people is antithetical to community. Consequently, volunteers are often being of more service to agencies than they are to the community.

Likewise, the top-down nature of agencies is not conducive to community. People volunteer in programs and services designed and managed by professional staff. These staff have an important role to play, but they are no substitute for community. Communities have their own unique and more holistic ways of caring for one another and the planet, promoting health and happiness, preventing crime, responding to disaster, creating great places, strengthening democracy, and advancing social justice. The more people are involved as community members, the less need there will be for volunteers.

Of course, some volunteers will always be necessary and, in my talk, I did go on to describe ways in which not-for-profit organizations could attract and retain more of them. That includes the common techniques of outreach and volunteer recognition, but the most powerful methods are those that adopt the practices of community – cultivate and build on relationships; identify and utilize everyone’s skills, passions and knowledge; work collaboratively with other agencies in focusing on whole places rather than separate functions; and give people a sense of ownership by empowering them to determine their own priorities and plan or co-design their own responses. When agencies do this, volunteers and clients are transformed into citizens and stronger communities result.


April 19
Amsterdam, The Netherlands

April 20-23
Goeree-Overflakkee, The Netherlands

April 25
Edmonton, Alberta, Canada

April 26
Kitchener, Ontario, Canada

April 27
Calgary, Alberta, Canada

May 2-6
Auckland, New Zealand

May 9-10
Dunedin, New Zealand

May 12-13
Greymouth, New Zealand

May 18-19
Melbourne, Australia

May 20
Kalgoorlie, Western Australia

June 2
Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada


050August 19 – September 21
New Zealand

September 28-29
Maple Ridge, British Columbia, Canada

September 30
Chilliwack, British Columbia, Canada

October 5-9

October 19-23
British Virgin Islands

October 30 - November 1
Victoria, British Columbia, Canada

November 9-23

November 30 - December 1
Kamloops, British Columbia, Canada

December 3-10

I was surprised when Cesar Cala, a fellow community organizer, complained that his efforts were often frustrated by “those GD activists.” “GD” I asked, “what are you talking about?” “The grim and determined,” he replied.

Cesar is right. Too many of us take ourselves way too seriously. We give the impression that activism is our cross to bear. If that’s our attitude, who’s going to want to join us? We need to lighten up and have fun if we want to make serious change.

Recently, I was the guest of Peter Kenyon, of the Bank of IDEAS, who lives in the Western Australian city of Kalamunda. Clearly, Peter’s infectious, fun-loving spirit has caught on. Kalamunda’s activists know the power of humor.

When the state government threatened to amalgamate Kalamunda with a neighboring city, the people didn’t spend a lot of time gathering signatures on petitions or testifying at public hearings. They organized a funeral procession mourning the death of democracy. Dressed in black and bearing a coffin, they paraded through the streets. The action generated media coverage like nothing else and contributed to the premier’s decision to back down. After all, who wants to be held responsible for the death of democracy?

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Kalamunda residents have also taken a light-hearted approach to the very serious issue of climate change. How do you draw attention to the melting polar ice caps and rising sea levels when you are in a city built on a hill 600 feet above and several miles away from the ocean? You prepare for the future by organizing a surf club. Jim Smith founded the surf club as a way to “raise awareness of the need for more sustainable living and to have some fun.” Now the surf club boasts membership from all over the world including the mayor of Miami Beach, Florida.


Residents of Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood were equally creative in raising the issue of environmental sustainability. Working with Sustainable Ballard, Julia Field started issuing official-looking undriver licenses to those who pledged to use alternative transportation. An undriver license entitles the bearer to board the shufflebus, a foot-powered, Fred Flinstone-type vehicle that gets passersby thinking about what they can do to reduce their carbon footprint.


One of the best examples of creative activism is the Backbone Campaign based where I live on Vashon Island, Washington. The organization is named for a 70-foot-long backbone puppet that it took to the Democratic National Convention and President Obama’s inauguration to encourage them to have the backbone to support progressive causes.


When the Supreme Court ruled in favor of corporate personhood, the Backbone Campaign protested by unrolling a gigantic copy of the constitution down the building’s steps; the police didn’t know how to react because they didn’t want to mess with the constitution. Later, the activists used a theater light to project dollar signs all over the side of the Supreme Court; again, there was nothing the police could do because no trespassing or vandalism had been involved.


Every summer, the Backbone Campaign sponsors an artful action camp which includes training activists how to use kayaks for protests. Kayaktivists successfully shut down construction of a dock to be used for a gravel mine on Vashon Island and that property has now been converted into a large park. Kayakers trained by the Backbone Campaign are also playing a major role in disrupting Shell’s plans to drill for oil in the Arctic.


In Surrey, British Columbia, residents faced the problem confronting communities everywhere – the loss of access to public space due to a misguided crime prevention strategy. The bench beneath the SkyTrain station had been fenced off in order to keep the "wrong people" from using it. Of course, the fence meant that nobody had access. “How can you build community without bumping places?” the citizens  wondered.


The community responded with a Free the Bench campaign. During the street fair in the adjacent business district, they used the performance stage to put the bench on trial. A local member of parliament served as the magistrate and one witness after another testified to the good character of the bench. The audience voted unanimously as the jury to free the bench.


When the local officials refused to honor the jury’s verdict, community members used humor to demonstrate the absurdity of imprisoning a bench. They brought dozens of chairs inside the fence to keep the bench company. When city workers removed the chairs, activists created a park scene complete with a birdhouse and mannequins sitting on the bench playing chess. Later, the scene was changed so that the bench resembled a sofa facing a coffee table and television set.


More and more people visited the bench to see the ever-changing scene and to have laughs at the City’s expense. One time, artists converted the bench into a dinosaur (benchosaurus). Later, they decorated the space with hundreds of origami cranes and invited visitors to add their own. When it became Christmastime and the bench was still imprisoned, they installed a Christmas tree and a fireplace hung with stockings.

Finally, the City relented and announced that the bench would be set free. Residents were invited to a celebration where they could paint love messages on the bench. There are now many benches on the plaza next to Surrey’s new city hall.


When neighbors became increasingly concerned about the crime that had overtaken the 118th Avenue business district in Edmonton, they didn't spend their time in meetings complaining to the police. Instead, they renovated one of the many boarded up storefronts as the Carrot, a coffee shop operated by the community. Local musicians started playing in the Carrot and artists displayed their works. It wasn't long before the art spilled out of the coffee shop and into the street, and the annual Kaleido Festival was born. A winter festival soon followed and then a farmers market. Now, instead of avoiding 118th Avenue, people from throughout the region are attracted to this vibrant district of multi-ethnic restaurants and unique shops including a beautiful new center for artists with disabilities.


In downtown Tacoma, residents were concerned about the increasing number of pedestrian accidents. They organized Citizens for a Safe Tacoma but, rather than holding any meetings, they used their time to paint crosswalks in the middle of the night. The City responded by using grinders to remove the rogue crosswalks. Several days later, however, the crosswalks had been repainted. This time, not only did the City remove the crosswalks but they threatened to prosecute anyone caught painting them. So, the protesters painted polka dots instead of crosswalks.  The City Manager finally gave up, organized a forum on what to do about pedestrian safety, and announced that one million dollars would be budgeted for safety improvements downtown.


All of these stories illustrate how creative activism can result in greater participation and better outcomes. But, even if the action isn’t successful, at least everyone will have fun in the process. As Emma Goldman said: “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.”