Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Paying it Forward

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240_OWEECHALLENGE3

I was the media manager for a non profit in Salt Lake called One World Everybody Eats from 2005 to 2010.  OWEE is a successful pay-what-you-can community kitchen that prepared gourmet vegetarian, meat and vegan main courses, appetizers, soups, salads & desserts.  As a board member, one of the perks was that I got to eat free, which I seldom did.  None of us did very often.

The kitchen relied on volunteers and plainly speaking, some volunteers were simply better than others.  I understand a volunteer is gift.  But the work they do is directly linked to the passion with which they do it.  And a volunteer with a bad attitude, a hidden agenda or an ego complex in tow is not a gift.  Sometimes, we had to work with volunteers for awhile to really see where they were.  Sometimes, weak starters finished strong.  Sometimes, the consistent were consistent throughout.  Sometimes, a volunteer who couldn’t or wouldn’t do A did B like a champion.  But the biggest disappointment were those who make the biggest promises in the beginning but failed by choice.

Suprisingly, this is something research bore out with volunteers and customers.  Jude Higgins is an anthropologist for the University of Utah.  She was smitten by our PWYC model.  So much so, she investigated the social engineering behind how these type of kitchens work.  It led to a research project that found among other findings, that the people who tended to do the most talking about how they resonated with the concept were most likely to be the ones who tried to game the system somehow.  Their rationale: “Because I am so much like you, you should give me a pass to enjoy benefits not reserved for me.”  In both cases, those customers and those volunteers thought that because they had known the founder since the start, that they were on her level and therefore knew what she knew, had the same scars she had, the same sleepless nights, the same legal responsibilities, the same fears, the same to-the-bitter-end commitment, the same deep in-your-bones passion.

They did not.

Specifically, some customers would go through the line, pile their plates with food and pay nothing.  Meanwhile, some volunteers conflated their good work on project X as an entitlement to behave poorly when we did or did not give them project Y.  In other cases, when we called them on their behavior, they were indignant.  “How dare you question me” is a summary of what we often heard both from big eaters and volunteers who felt we were too stupid to truly appreciate their commitment or capabilities.  After awhile, we started to get the feeling that these people were never troubled by the condemnation of others since evidence of their poor performance was probably something they had long since learned to live with.

The volunteers without the egos were the ones who went on to start their own kitchens, manage their own volunteers and otherwise, shine.  We followed their progress with joy and pride.  The ones with the egos left us convincing themselves that they were smarter than we would ever be and we would always be assholes.  We didn’t keep up on their progress.

One World Everybody Eats continues to thrive and it continues to rely on volunteers.  What we started in Salt Lake 10 years ago has grown to nearly 100 community kitchens all over the country. I think there are even a few internationally.  In September 2004, we received our 501c3 and we were off.  I ocassionaly get an email from Denise Ceretta (the founder) telling me they miss me and it makes me feel wonderful that my work helped One World get to where it is.  We had some amazing times, like when Rush Limbaugh apologized for insulting us and we subsequently sent him a box of our Everything Cookie.  But that’s another story.

I learned a lot about leadership at One World by learning a lot about volunteers.

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