This week (June 19, 2018) I had the great opportunity of attending the Points of Light #ServiceUnites conference in Atlanta. Service Unites, formerly called the Conference on Volunteering and Service, is the world’s largest service-relating convening, bringing together more than 2,500 nonprofit, government, business and civic leaders to gain and share the knowledge, resources, and connections needed to galvanize the power of people to create change globally. On the 19th of June, I joined one of the sessions as a panelist to contribute to discussions on volunteer engagement in the 31st century. It’s essential to point out that the “three” in 31st is not a mistake, but indeed a fun-filled twist to look way further than anyone has wanted to, to derive and discuss how volunteering and service engagement may evolve in the next century.
The panel was moderated by Ben Bisbee, Founder & Principal of Rhinocorn Consulting and the panelists were Kelly Lovell, CEO of Lovell Corp; Jennifer Bennet, Vice President of Education at VolunteerMatch, and myself, as the Executive Director of IVolunteer International. We had a full audience (which was good) but most importantly, had quite an enthusiastic crowd who were full of energy early in the morning (at 8:30 am!!).
The panel took off with an introduction to the session. Ben made it clear that the panel wasn’t going to be about the serious nonprofit conflicts and issues but rather an open-eyed view of the future of volunteer engagement in realms untouched in the most soothing of dreams. I would like to write and report on all the little discussions we had, but to be honest I don’t remember all of them. But here are some things that stayed with me;
How will Aliens join hands with us on the volunteer business?
When we speak of aliens here, we are talking about “extraterrestrial beings” potentially living in other planets and galaxies – not a travel status that categorize humans as legal/illegal aliens entering countries of their choice. But it was quite interesting to ponder on how “aliens” will respond to the art/act of volunteering and service. Some of the pointers that were brought to the floor included our own diversity in understanding the concept of volunteering. If you think about it, in some cultures, people come together to volunteer without consciously thinking of it as an act of volunteering or service. As an example, in Sri Lanka, we do so much volunteering without labeling it as such. But in developed countries like the United States and the United Kingdom, the act of volunteering is more programmed and institutionalized by nonprofits, communities, and activists. So we accommodated the thought that if we encounter so many different perspectives about volunteering in our own planet, that there will be distinct understandings of volunteer service between us and aliens.
We also accommodated the thought that on the other extreme end, maybe aliens would have found solutions to much of the evolving global problems like war, poverty, hunger, and other humanitarian crisis. Since a profound amount of nonprofit organizations operate to find a solution to a problem, if aliens have already found solutions then “volunteering” or “service” in the nonprofit industry would be a historic topic to them and may not be relevant.
Limitless transportation and open-ended live communication?!
Yes! We spoke about how limitless and boundaryless transportation influence volunteerism and service in the next century. This was an intriguing topic. Think about individuals being able to travel to different planets and countries in a blink of an eye. First, we understood that if this was the case – that if transportation technology has evolved to such an extent to provide us this much of a service, then most of our global distribution problems would have been solved. We would be able to distribute the food around the world to every corner of the world. We would be able to teleport into a war zone and evict all the civilians into a safe area. This opens up a whole new can of worms though. What happens to defend borders and filtering transportation if transportation happens in the blink of an eye? Moving around civilians out of a war zone will also mean bringing the conflict with us or transporting terrorists and other societal destruction “machinery” around in the same time space. But we didn’t go there – at least not here.
The other point was communication. Someone in the audience asked us that if VR/AI technology will be able to provide a more “realistic” scenario of people in need. As an example, if you experience the real issues of a family living in poverty, going through harassment, or fleeing war by using state of the art technology like holographs, AI/VR and other methods, will it encourage people to empathize more, take action more, care more and maybe even provide hands-on support to those people? There were different opinions – but I (sadly) wanted to say NO!. We won’t. I say this because when social media was born, it provided us with a lot of information about what’s going on around the world in real-time. We knew where the problems were, how it happened, who caused them, who is affected, and how we can help. But after all these years, we have gotten numb to the millions of issues that fill our newsfeed from around the world. Nowadays, more than taking action we are dumbfounded and felt small because there’s so much going on. This will be the destiny of the technologies that provide us the facility to experience “need” in real time. We will get used to it and it’ll end up being just another experience we see through our technology.
Will Mars colonies volunteer for themselves?
Yes. When we speak about the future we couldn’t move on without talking about colonizing other planets. When we do that, volunteerism will be born there too. Neighborhoods will come together to find common causes that connect them and will start volunteering. Although I’m sure that this will happen, I don’t think it will be “futuristic” for humans on Mars. See – when we colonize Mars, volunteerism will be born like it did when volunteerism was born here on earth. People will first help each other with empathy and human compassion. Then problems will grow bigger and opinions will collide. This will need “government” support which will lead to institutionalized and strategic problem-solving methods. This will give birth to nonprofit organizations, foundations and other entities that are empowered and enabled with the resources to take action. Mars will grow and so will volunteering at the same speed our human compassion will outweigh the necessity to uphold our opinions and perspectives.
These are some of the discussions we had. We spoke about youth engagement, the importance of sustainable software and technology integration to nonprofit effectiveness and the importance of collaboration. We had a great time getting to know everyone. The entire Points of Light #ServiceUnites conference will be a one to remember. I would like to extend my thanks to Ben Bisbee for coordinating the session with the panelists and making it the true success it was yesterday.