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The Power of Volunteers
How a volunteer group can change the world

by Thomas W. McKee


When I first met this group, they walked into the room in athletic shoes with whistles around their necks. They were all volunteers who had no money, no power, and no influence. But together they changed a California law—not an easy task.

Who were these people? Most of them were high school coaches who used to teach driver's education. California had eliminated behind-the-wheel driver's education, and this group got together to see what they could do to reverse the trend of teenage driver caused accidents on the California highways. They were the leaders from the California Association for Safety Education (CASE). Their concern was the neophyte teenage drivers on the road.

How can a group of volunteers become powerful when they are not the rich and famous? How can a group of high school teachers change the laws of the legislature? How can volunteers, without money or influence, make a difference? CASE's success story is about two words: Focus and Partnerships.

The Power of a Focused Group

The first essential for the volunteer team is focus. When Jan Scruggs had a passion to build a memorial for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, he had to overcome the feelings of anger, failure and disunity of a war that divided our country. Yet Jan Scruggs, when he was raising the $8 million for the Vietnam Memorial, was able to involve opposites like George McGovern and Barry Goldwater because he discovered a word that would bring unity. That word was "veteran." The memorial is a veterans memorial, not a war memorial. The word "veteran" brought focus. The American people got behind the project because they wanted to honor the veterans. The word "war" would have brought chaos and sabotaged Jan's passion. He raised $8 million in 2 ˝ years (in 1979), 2 1/2 years ahead of his goal.

The California Association of Safety Education (CASE) defined its focus: "Develop and pass a graduated license program so that sixteen-year-old teenagers can not get a regular driver's license until they are 18." When they all united with a single purpose cause, they had won 90% of the battle. The entire volunteer organization was focused on that cause. In just over two years, they developed a graduated driver's license program, and the law was passed in July 1, 1998. The graduated driver's license program is in effect, and teenage drivers hold a provisional driver's license until they are 18. For the first six months no passengers under age 20 are allowed unless a licensed driver who is 25 or older is present. For the first 12 months no driving is permitted between midnight and 5 a.m. unless accompanied by a licensed driver who is 25 or older.

The Power of Strategic Partnerships

The second essential is strategic partnerships. When CASE brainstormed ways to accomplish their goal, they decided that they needed to partner with organizations and agencies who had money and power. They were able to recruit influential members of insurance companies and representatives from the Department of Motor Vehicles who were also concerned about the problems of teenage drivers. The leaders of CASE were able to involve representatives of these two powerful groups on their task force, and when the leaders of these two organizations were part of CASE's mission, things happened.

When leaders know how to mobilize volunteers to accomplish their passion, they can become powerful. It begins with a passion for a unified mission. When groups are fighting over their mission, they accomplish nothing and are not able to attract the partners they need to accomplish anything. But when they become unified, they can change the world.


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