Yellowfire Press.


Edited by Ivan H. Scheier

.@ -- permission for use-with-acknowledgment

We all know the serious side of volunteering: the vital things volunteers try to do and the frustrations and disappointments along the way to success.

There’s a sunny side, too, a funny side, and a little peek at that is presented here…

…Not just for the laughs. Comedy can also instruct.

So enjoy.

And use, if you wish, in newsletters, reports, media releases, to make a point in public speaking or in training, as themes for posters, only acknowledge the source, please. We’ll do the same for any pointed humor you’d care to share about volunteering.

Here in its mature entirety is an opinion on volunteering contributed to the Flint, Michigan Journal in May 1984.

Age 9, Sobey Elementary, Flint

I volunteer to help my mom all the time. I help her do the laundry and vacuuming. I also help her with stuff from the office. In return, she volunteers to help me with my homework and fixes my bike. When we get potato chips, fudge and watermelon, I volunteer to help eat it!

I also help my teachers, mostly by running errands. Once I helped my teachers by volunteering my mom to cook 30 pieces of chicken without telling her until the day of the party. I don’t volunteer my mom anymore.

Moral: Never volunteer anyone. Especially your mother.

Networks are an important channel for people-to-people volunteering. Too often, though, modern "conveniences" make it all too easy for us to ignore each other instead. This point was powerfully illustrated in a cartoon announcing a network training I conducted several years ago.

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Now look at this cartoon.

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Once upon a time,
there were some people stuck in a pit…

They tried to fly out
by flapping their arms…

They tried jumping …

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They tried mediation
and levitation…

They even tried
climbing the walls…

This went on for years and years until
they had tried everything except
helping each other out…

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So they helped each other out!

  For many years I used this cartoon as a crystal clear example of cooperative volunteering at its best. But there’s always a voice from the back of the room. One day that voice said:

Hey! What about the lady on the bottom in the last frame?
What’s she smiling about?
She could get left…

Oh, the pity of it. Nowadays, I ask people to spot the flaw in the cartoon and to come up with a solution.


  1. Come back with a ladder.
  2. Throw her a life jacket and flood the pit.

MORAL: Volunteerism shouldn’t be one more way of keeping a good woman down.

Speaking of cooperation, a friend lent me this cartoon a couple of years ago.  It certainly restored my faith in mules.
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MORAL: When win-lose doesn't work, try win-win.

A sudden fire raged in a warehouse on the edge of the city. The city fire department came soon, fought the fire successfully but couldn’t get close enough to put it out. The fire was too furiously hot and continued to consume the warehouse.

Desperate, the owner called the nearest rural volunteer fire department. He’d hardly put the phone down, it seemed, before an ancient truck came tearing down the hill at breakneck speed. Volunteer firefighters clung to the truck at all angles, plastic helmets in place, which was more than you could sometimes say for the rest of their clothes.

The firetruck careened into the warehouse driveway and – WHAT’S THIS? – did not stop. Instead, it smashed right through a burning wall into the very center of the fire. From there, sounds of frantic firefighting were heard and, wonder of wonders, the fire was soon under control and out, through the combined efforts of the city and volunteer fire departments.

To the cheers of all, the volunteer firefighters stumbled out from the heart of what had been, a few minutes earlier, a raging inferno. All were safe, though somewhat singed, and their plastic helmets had assumed interesting new shapes.

The warehouse owner rushed up to the volunteer fire chief. "Chief," he said, "I’ve never seen such courage and professional skill. What bold techniques to fight that fire from the inside! Words can hardly express my thanks for your saving my warehouse. Therefore, please accept this check for $5,000 as a contribution to the good work of your volunteer fire department."

The chief thanked him, and a nearby city reporter added: "That goes for me, too, chief. Your volunteers use really advanced methods, and have great courage. Now, do you mind telling our readers what the volunteer fire department will use that $5,000 for?"

"First thing I’m going to do is fix those darn brakes," said the chief.

MORAL: If you find yourself about to proclaim the superiority of being unpaid, check your brakes.

A lady was delivering some penguins to the zoo one hot summer day and – of all times – her truck broke down. She felt she could fix the truck in an hour or two but was worried about wilting penguins. So she flagged down a passing motorist and asked the man if he would mind taking the penguins to the zoo. The gentleman volunteered to do so and left with the penguins.

Finally, the lady fixed her truck and arrived at the zoo. No penguins. Appalled, she drove around looking for the penguins, and at last found them in a nearby town, following the man down Main Street. Relieved, but angry, the lady ran up to the man and shouted: "I thought I told you to take those penguins to the zoo."

"I did take them to the zoo," said the man, "but we had such a good time there we decided to take in a movie, and now we’re going shopping."

MORAL: If you haven’t got time to explain clearly what you’d like your volunteers to do, maybe you shouldn’t be working at the zoo.

Many years ago, I was invited to address a conference of county judges in a rural state. The conference sponsor urged me not to get fancy. "Just give the basics, and try to persuade them to give volunteers a try in their county," he advised. The advice made sense, for in those days we weren’t yet talking about how best to involve volunteers. The question was whether.

So, I went on at some length defining the word "volunteer," describing some of the kinds of people who volunteered and the great things the did. "Give it a try, your honors," I urged in conclusion. "You’ll like it."

After the lecture, I was approached by a fine-looking old judge. His name tag told me this town couldn’t have more that a thousand people in it.

"Well, Doc," the Judge said, "that was a pretty good talk. But I don’t think I need none of them volunteers."

"Okay, Judge," said I. "Thanks for hearing me out. But I can’t help wondering why you think volunteers can’t help you out in your court work."

"Tell you why," said the Judge. "Just in my little town, I’ve got six probation officers working for me. That’s plenty."

My response to this was first to check my hearing aid battery, because a town that size is lucky to have one probation officer visiting once a week.

Battery A-ok; I must have heard him right, so I responded:

"Judge, that’s amazing! Maybe you don’t need volunteers, if you have six probation officers. But do you mind telling me how a town your size gets the budget to hire six probation officers?"

"Heck," said the Judge. "I don’t pay ‘em nothin’!"

MORAL: Define volunteers all you want. People will probably use them anyhow.

I had a similar experience jawboning a police chief in California. I tried and tried and tried and TRIED to persuade him to give volunteers a try. No way was he going to get involved with "do-gooders." So I switched subjects, and asked him to describe some programs he was proud of. He began with his police reserves. Not only were these people unpaid; they also bought their own uniforms and weapons! But volunteers? NEVER!

MORAL: In the helping game, who cares what you call it? Just do it.

How many different volunteer jobs do you think there are? These are all different names under which volunteers do business; I call them titles of caring and have collected over a thousand. I believe the complete honor role of honorable roles would stretch fifty thousand phrases long. An entire Yellowfire Press publication devoted to this is "The Things Volunteers do: A Thousand Names of Caring."

Here let’s look at a fun game you can play with volunteer job names. Each of two people, or each two teams, concocts ten such titles. Make this as exotic and mysterious as possible. The jobs must refer to real work done on a volunteer basis by real people. However, the people who perform the work don’t necessarily have to think of themselves as "volunteers." But the actual job title has to be used by someone (other than you) to refer to this work. Getting tricky, right?

In rotation, each person or team presents a title for the other team to guess, (three chances), until they have run through both lists. The team with the most correct guesses wins something or other; the other team volunteers to clean up after the party, and whoever attempted to referee the chaos gets blamed for everything.

You can take titles from the Yellowfire publication previously mentioned, but it’s more fun and probably more effective to think of them yourself.


Green Guerrilla: a volunteer gardener advisor, but with a flair. Can’t you just see her or him, stalking the wild crabgrass in her or his Green Beret?

Toy Runners: A "tough" motorcycle gang in California, which annually collects and repairs toys for disadvantaged kids.

Elm Watcher: A volunteer who watches elms, of course. So give us one point credit, right? Wrong, and here is where referees get into real trouble. A fully correct answer would tell us a bit about why they’re watching elms and where. In New York, volunteers watch elms to detect early signs of Dutch Elm disease, thereby making early treatment possible to save the tree – we hope.

Fluid Systems Analyst – Empties bed pans, but never on elm trees.

Get the idea?


Some years ago, a state office of volunteerism ran a statewide survey of volunteer programs and groups. "What problems are you having that we might help you with?" they asked.

For a while it seemed as if a survey were hardly necessary. The all-too-familiar patterns emerged: staff resistance, insufficient funds, high volunteer turnover, how to fire a volunteer, etc. Then came returns from rural volunteer fire department. "Our main problem," they said, "is that in the past two years we haven’t had a fire."

It’s not like it sounds. Presumably a happily fireless two years had nevertheless lulled people into forgetting how important fire protection is. Hence, recruiting volunteers became harder.

In responding to this problem, the state office did not, repeat DID NOT, suggest recruiting a volunteer arsonist. They did send some time-tested tips on recruiting volunteers.

MORAL: There’s more than one way to build a fire.


Dig in the dictionary and read in the library. You’ll find that the work "volunteer" can signify:

UNAKSED. The "volunteer" plant, an agricultural surprise you didn’t plant and don’t want, but it comes up anyhow in a field full of something else.

UNPAID. (=unworthy) Here we’d like to forget, but can’t, Huck Finn’s famous remark: "He didn’t charge nothin’ for his preaching’ and it was worth it."

UNINTELLIGENT. Folklore definition. A volunteer is a person who when the Sergeant says "All volunteers take one step forward!" is too dumb to take one step backward with the rest of us.

But cheer up. We may even get back at Sarge someday because "volunteer" can also mean:

UNSTOPPABLE. A latin root of the work "volunteer" is "voluntas" which means "absolute monarch." On the other hand, stopping might not be such a bad idea because immediately following "voluntas" in the unabridged dictionary is "voluptas," as in voluptuous. So if you can’t stop, at least slow down a little.


A graduate student is one of the lowest forms of life. Recognition that conceivably you might amount to something someday is slow in coming. At my university, the recognition signal consisted of being asked (briefly) to thank the speaker at the monthly department seminar. (Actually, introducing the speaker was a much higher form or recognition, possible only after writing several books.)

Finally, my summons came, and I resolved to make the most of it. On the great day, attendance at the seminar was huge by our standards – about 200. The speaker was the eminent psychologist Dr. Carney Landis. He was introduced by no less that Dr. Hebb, the chairperson of the Department himself.

I scarcely listened as Dr. Hebb pointed out that it was hardly necessary to introduce a colleague as distinguished as Dr. Landis. Of the lecture itself, I remember scarcely a word. I was too busy thinking of something extremely clever and sophisticated to say in my brief thank you – something that would tie in Dr. Hebb’s introduction with Dr. Landis’ fame as an expert in the interpretation of facial expressions.

Finally, I had it, and, just about then, Dr. Landis finished his lecture.

I rose and said:

"Just as Dr. Hebb said it was hardly necessary to introduce our speaker, I think it is hardly necessary to thank him…"

Tumult. A distinguished professor or two hit the aisle rolling. So I never did get to complete the sentence over the roar but want to put in on the record now:

"… our facial expressions have surely told Dr. Landis clearly how much we appreciated his lecture."

McGill University sent me out into the cruel world soon after. I never did learn just why.

MORAL: Don’t be too cute about it. Sincere and simple thanks are the best kind.

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Ivan Scheier
607 Marr
Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, 87901
Tel (505) 894-1340