Story by: Laura Roddy
Kansans have developed a good reputation for their willingness to volunteer. How do we leverage the state’s spirit of service into more acts of leadership?
We Kansans excel at volunteering. We roll up our sleeves to collect food and clothing, assist with tutoring, help with fundraisers, coach youth sports teams and give our time through our churches.
We do these things at rates high enough – 35.1 percent of us, compared with the overall national rate of 24.3 percent – to rank fifth in the nation, according to the federal Corporation for National and Community Service’s “Volunteering and Civic Life in America” report for 2014, the latest available.
Nearly twice as many of us engage in what’s called informal volunteering, things such as doing favors for neighbors. And more than half of us give $25 or more to charity.
The numbers are even more impressive when we look at our young people. Kansas ranked first in the nation for teenage volunteers with 41 percent participating.
Even with Kansas’ high overall volunteer rate, it is youths and retirees who do the most community service. People in their 30s and 40s don’t volunteer as frequently, according to the national report, but those who have children volunteer more than those who don’t.
But where’s the place where leadership and volunteering intersect? At the Kansas Leadership Center, the goal is to equip people to make lasting change for the common good. What is it that makes people take their volunteering a step further? How does a person go from making a donation or pitching in to identifying a gap or need in the civic sphere and taking action?
Brandon Kliewer, assistant professor of civic leadership in the Staley School of Leadership Studies at Kansas State University, says civic engagement is best related to as a spectrum, rather than a ladder.
So it’s not that you start by giving a few bucks, then give a few hours and then decide to become a leader.
Rather, it’s about identifying something in the status quo that needs disrupting – envisioning a change away from simply volunteer hours and cash contributions.
As Kliewer points out, in some instances it works to write a check or help with a cleanup. We’re always going to need that in cases of natural disasters, for example.
It’s just that service can inspire acts of leadership.
“When people are out there giving to charity and volunteering, what they are doing is making multiple observations,” he says. That can help them figure the best way to intervene skillfully for lasting change.
For someone without formal authority, Kliewer says, being an effective civic leader means taking into full account the social, political, economic and moral spheres surrounding the issue at hand. “Unpacking ‘civic’ with our students becomes really important,” Kliewer says.
It’s also about changing the perspective of the volunteer. “We don’t do service for the community. We do service with and within the community,” Kliewer says. “When service is done with and within the community, then we see the capacity for change.”
Liz Workman is interested in the intersection of volunteering and leadership. In fact, as chief executive officer of the Girl Scouts of Kansas Heartland – covering 80 of Kansas’ 105 counties – it’s at the very core of her organization’s mission.
The Girl Scouts are known as do-gooders. Adult alumnae are more civically engaged, volunteer more and vote more, studies show. But that’s just part of the equation, she says.
“Everything we do has a leadership element,” Workman says. “Girl Scouts is really about preparing girls and women to empower themselves for everyday leadership.”
The organization focuses on activities that are girl-led, cooperative and hands-on. The message, Workman says, is: “You can make a difference, and you have to act to do it. You have to engage with others.”
The Journal spoke in-depth with three volunteers who have done just that. They have served, and then they have acted to make lasting change for the common good.
TAP INTO YOUR PASSION: CINDY MILES
Frequently, people assume Wichita’s Cindy Miles just doesn’t know how to say no.
She is involved in many organizations – Crimestoppers, Sunlight Children’s Advocacy and Rights Foundation, a city district advisory board, Junior League of Wichita, the Wichita Coalition for Child Abuse Prevention, to name a few – and she is active on social media, often using the hashtag #communitymatters when she checks in at a meeting.
Miles says she says no regularly, but she also is eager to say yes to the right opportunities. For example, although she was honored to be asked to compete in the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’s Woman of the Year fundraising contest, she turned it down.
“I have defined a personal mission for my life,” says Miles, who is the executive director of the Nonprofit Chamber of Service. “Outside of that, when people approach me about different projects, I decline.”
If it relates to education, children, poverty or domestic violence, Miles will pour her heart and soul into helping. “Serving on the boards, the committees is my hobby,” she says.
Miles says overcoming difficult experiences in her own life is what inspires her to help others. She grew up in poverty and was a victim of molestation and child pornography by a violent, alcoholic stepfather. Later, she ended up in a violent marriage herself – afraid to stay but also afraid to leave. At age 26, Miles had kids ages 2, 4 and 6 with no car, no job and no money, but she rebuilt her life. She dropped out of college, sold her waterbed to feed her kids and took a job cleaning hotel rooms.
“Life was pretty rough growing up,” she says. “I was able to direct my life in a different way than I grew up. That’s what drives me every day – how can I help people go in a different direction?”
Miles says her own struggles helped her develop empathy and understanding. As a child, she didn’t understand why her mother didn’t leave her abusive spouse. When she found herself in a similar situation, she found out just how hard it is to walk way.
Miles, who along with her husband is raising four grandchildren, is particularly proud of her efforts in getting two programs off the ground: a leadership program for youth through the Kansas Hispanic Education and Development Foundation and the recent founding of the Incubator for Nonprofits of Kansas, which aims to assist nonprofits with budgets of $250,000 or less.
She found she could use her marketing background and experience with nonprofits’ management to help them be more effective. She pushes for boards to implement and follow a strategic plan. Miles also advocates for diversity in membership, making sure to have fundraisers, worker bees and people with connections, as well as members with marketing, accounting and legal expertise.
The Kansas Hispanic Education and Development Foundation is important to her because Hispanics are under-represented in positions of influence in the community, she says. With the Incubator for Nonprofits of Kansas, Miles finds that nonprofits are passionate about their missions but often underfunded. She finds that using Kansas Leadership Center principles – in particular, diagnosing the situation and focusing on adaptive work – can help those entities be more successful.
“I know by helping these organizations, I can thereby impact people,” Miles says.
Miles says her volunteer life was transformed when it became an act of leadership for her – when she had a vision for making progress on an issue that she cared about, rather than simply assisting with an organization’s day-to-day operating.
She spent years helping out through her kids’ activities, such as serving as the soccer club secretary or helping coach a team, but for her, “it was more out of obligation and not out of passion.”
That’s why Miles believes that to be the most effective volunteer leader, you must define your personal mission.
“Make a list of things you really care about,” she says. “What is it that you’re passionate about? You can’t do everything.”
GIVE YOURSELF PERMISSION: ERIC HASELHORST
Being active in the community is something that comes naturally to Eric Haselhorst, who along with his wife and three children calls Dodge City home.
Haselhorst works as director of stewardship for the Catholic Diocese of Dodge City, so service through church has always been important. And his wife’s job with the Dodge City Convention and Visitors Bureau has driven home the importance of civic pride.
For him, volunteering became an act of leadership when he decided to attend an informational meeting about a new pool for Dodge City. “Our whole region needed this,” Haselhorst says.
So that’s how he found himself helping to spearhead a task force two years ago dedicated to persuading city and county officials to undertake the project.
It was a tall order, but one that he said was desperately needed after two unsuccessful attempts had consumed decades.
The existing pool was a traditional rectangle shape with a slide, but it was aging, deteriorating and leaking.
The new Long Branch Lagoon Aquatics Park, which opened in the summer of 2016, has an Olympic-sized lap pool, lazy river, shallow water pool, play structures, slides, a climbing wall and more. In Haselhorst’s view, the aquatics park improves the quality of life in the region for all ages and abilities, with swim lessons, low-impact water aerobics and competitive swimming.
“There’s no comparison,” he says. “It’s not even apples and oranges.”
Haselhorst says he acted both because he had the passion for the project and thought he had something to contribute. He knew he had the skills and willingness to speak in public meetings and rally support from the community members.
“It was grass roots all the way,” Haselhorst says. He had countless conversations, telling people, “If you love this idea, we have to have your voice heard.”
Haselhorst also addressed opposition head-on. Some people didn’t favor spending $11 million on a project that would be open only three months a year. His response was that in three months, the new attraction would have more traffic – a projected 1,200 visitors a day – than others in Dodge City have all year.
Another concern was the amount of water needed, 3 million gallons. But Haselhorst was able to explain it was a drop in the bucket compared with what people on a city block use or what it takes to grow corn.
Haselhorst says it was eye-opening to work with government, but he encourages others to act and not wait for some sort of elusive permission.
“Right now is the greatest time in human history. Even though there is a lot of darkness, there can be tremendous light,” he says. “Go. Start. You just have to start.”
BRING OTHERS ON BOARD: LAUREN BROWNING
Lauren Browning of Overland Park could be the poster teen for Kansas youth community service. The 19-year-old was honored nationally this year as one of the state’s top two youth volunteers. She just as easily could have been honored for leadership skills.
Browning started a charitable face-painting outfit called Faces of Hope nine years ago that is still going strong with a cadre of a dozen volunteers. Now that she has started college out of state, she handed the reins over to two dedicated tweens.
Faces of Hope, which after years of effort recently became a registered 501(c)3 nonprofit, developed when a close family friend, Braden, developed childhood neuroblastoma cancer. Browning found there were very few opportunities for kids under 12 to contribute in a significant way. “It’s like, well, you can hand out water bottles,” she says.
Painting faces was something she enjoyed and found it could brighten the lives of sick kids.
First, she did it mostly for the cancer community. With help from her parents, she branched off and added more painters. The crew is now booked almost every weekend, never charging to paint at any event aimed at bettering the community. Faces of Hope does accept donations, however, and sends all proceeds to a rotating group of charities, but Braden’s Hope for Childhood Cancer is always on the list.
It was a serious time commitment, and Browning acknowledges that there were times when it was inconvenient and she didn’t particularly feel like squeezing in another event.
“The weekends that I don’t want to paint are the weekends that I need to paint,” says Browning, who is in the process of setting up a Faces of Hope satellite as she pursues a bachelor of fine arts in theater.
She reminds herself of the time she painted the face of a little girl wearing pink who used a breathing machine. The girl was so happy, and Browning found out that she died just days later.
“Whenever things get tough, I always think of that,” she says, emphasizing the importance of the interaction between the painter and the child. “The actual painting is the least important thing we do in my opinion.”
Even though Browning loves to volunteer, she has strong feelings about required service for teens.
“It hurts my heart when I know a kid just wants to volunteer to get hours for school or for a résumé,” she says. “I think it totally puts the value on the wrong part. Although the intentions are good, I think the result is skewed. I know so many kids who are jumping through hoops.”
She compared it to reading – which she says is fun for lots of kids until it is an assignment, and then it often is viewed as a chore.
“Forced community service is not how you find your passion,” she says. “I genuinely love painting faces.”
Browning, like many community go-getters, has a laundry list of involvement beyond Faces of Hope: school mascot, president and founder of the yoga and pilates club, and dedicated drama student. For her senior project at Blue Valley Southwest High School, she wrote and directed 20 original works on gender norms, date culture and rape in society.
Browning says leadership and volunteering go hand in hand. “I think when you get out into the community and see things beyond your normal everyday life, you see the need for leadership. Community service helps encourage the right kind of leaders.”
This article was originally published in the Fall 2016 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit http://kansasleadershipcenter.org. For a subscription to the printed edition of The Journal, visit klcjr.nl/amzsubscribe