Working With Volunteers – Observe the John Cusack Rule

Observe the John Cusack rule.

When Inside the Actor’s Studio interviewed actor John Cusack about his work as a producer, he said that he felt his primary job was to

“keep the set free of fear.”

It’s a powerful philosophy for any group, and it’s critical in long term operations. People experience enough fear and criticism in their everyday lives; the serving/volunteering has to be the place where they come for fun, joy, and affirmation. Violating that rule can undermine the group’s energy and badly limit creativity.

A common misstep in this respect is what we call data malpractice: using data to inspect or embarrass volunteers (e.g., publicly ranking their individual performance) instead of using it to create a culture of learning. Effective volunteer teams and organisations do use data — to highlight what works, ask constructive questions about what didn’t work, and then move on.

Keeping the environment fear-free on purpose can create a high-functioning volunteer group that finds meaning, has a good time, and accomplishes big things. When that happens, the group can form a durable identity that will persist for months and years to come. And that’s how large-scale change really begins to happen.