Adventures in (Not) Volunteering

Last night, the phone rang at close to nine o’clock.  Through pops and crackle like an old overseas call, a voice said, “Mr. Frost, this is the Inaugural Committee calling.”

It was the call I had been waiting for.  I was ready for anything.

Ball tickets?  No.  Bench seats for the Inaugural Parade?  Unh-unh.  A seat with a cushion at the swearing-in?  I don’t think so!  An Ambassadorship?!?!? I can dream, can’t I?

“Are you still interested in volunteering?”

Like walking from a dreamy matinee in a darkened theater into the afternoon sun, it took me a minute for my vision and thinking to adjust.

“Yes,” I said, tentatively, “but I didn’t think I could.  The spaces were all filled for the training sessions.”

“That’s all right,” she said.  “We need to know if you are available on the 20th.  Your slot will is from 5am to 3pm.  You would need to be outside all day.”

I slowly began to think about the cold and calculate how many layers of clothing I would to fit on after all that feasting during the holidays.  And, with the tree still up and the inauguration festivities coming, my feasting has  hasn’t ended yet either.

“5am?” I repeated, disbelieving.  I must have sounded a bit dim.

“You have to start at 5am.  You can’t leave home at 5am,” she said, disaprovingly through the continued popping and crackling.  She knew me too well.  Maybe she was calling from some far off US intelligence operation.  Perhaps the new administration had already found a new use for Guantanamo–a volunteer calling center!

“I don’t think there is any way I can get there at 5am,” I answered honestly.  Cars will be barred from most entry points to the city.  “And I don’t have a hotel room.”

“There will probably be Metro service from Springfield at that time,” she said, matter-of-factly.  But this didn’t sound possible at all.

“What do you need me to do?”

“Crowd control.”

Crowd control?  I asked myself.  Won’t there be a crowd of 4 to 6 million people?  And will I be standing outside holding people back from something or in somewhere from 5am to 3pm?  Where?

My one and only prior experience in crowd control was as a young development officer at Meridian International CenterLuciano Pavarotti had been dabbling in painting and came to show some of his works.  On the day of his exhibit, I was one of those who were charged with keeping at bay the rather senior ladies who idolized the tenor.  He stood on a short riser to make a few remarks in his singular voice.

Pavarotti was 6’1″ and 300 lbs.  I was the same height–only lower to the ground–and about 180 lbs.  Let me tell you, those ladies may have been small, but they were like fans in a mosh pit.  It took whatever little power I had to hold them back.

How was I going to do in a crowd of four million excited Obama fans?

“I really don’t think I can get there at 5am from Northern Virginia,” I said, sounding even more dimwitted than before.

“Well, I only have a few minutes and then I have to call someone else.  Can you do it?”

“What’s the next step?”  I was getting sucked in, just like an unwary prospect for a time share sale.

“When you tell us you’ll do it, someone else will send you the details.”

My brain finally began to work.  “Can you send me the details now and then I can confirm?”

Too easy.

“I only have a couple of choices,” she said politely, but clearly prepared to move on.  “One is outdoor, and the other is something else.”

Something else?  Indoors?  Maybe somewhere warm?  Or was this in a basement somewhere?

“Maybe you can send me the packet and I can take a look and confirm it’s something I can do?” I offered again.

“You have to let me know,” she said, firmly.

“Okay, how about if you just assume I’ve said ‘yes’ and I’ll await the packet and then confirm with your colleague.”

“Alright.  Thank you for volunteering for the Inaugural Committee,” she said, the next number already in hand.

I’ve looked today and there’s no email yet. Which may be just as well.  No matter how exciting it is to be a small part of this historic event, the idea of standing in the cold for ten hours with no idea what exactly I’m supposed to do or how it fits in with the entire event is a little too vague for me.

The Obama campaign was brilliant in so many ways.  The way it used all the tools and practices of nonprofit fundraising so effectively was inspirational in itself.  But I think that in the post election environment, they can learn a great deal from our world.

Volunteers are our muscle, our heart, our bully pulpit and so much more.  They can be, but are not necessarily, a renewable resource. How we recruit, train and retain volunteers says as much about us as anything else we do.

After all, the end of a political campaign, like the end of a special event or a capital campaign, is really just the beginning, isn’t it?

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1 Comment

  1. Jay,
    If you can’t make it to Washington, perhaps you’ll consider a drive north to an event taking place in Philadelphia being sponsored by The Center for Business Education and Development (CBED). We’ll be networking and also viewing the event in high-def. Event details can be found at

    Whatever you end up doing…..enjoy the historic day!

    Maria Semple
    The Prospect Finder LLC

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