Lynne Ballew, April 2019
An article in the series Transition: the Next Generation of Leadership
I have not been on the mat for 16 months and I have been retired from Birankai leadership for the same amount of time, yet here I am writing an article for Biran…still volunteering for an organization that I am no longer involved with. I began volunteering for Chiba Sensei in 1992 and I never stopped until December 2018. Over those 20 years I easily spent 15,000 volunteer hours for Birankai and Chiba Sensei, probably more, I never counted. It is worthwhile to analyze what motivated me to volunteer in order to understand what it would take to attract a new generation of leadership.
Wanting to give back to Sensei – Despite being a confirmed lifetime klutz, at 33, I began training in earnest. As my commitment to my training increased, my teacher took my training more seriously. He started using me for ukemi and paying attention to my progress on the mat. Because he, as my Teacher, took me seriously, I took him very seriously and felt compelled to give back to him and to the organization that he had established.
It was fun – I enjoyed volunteering. I had a chance to be creative and use what I was good at. For years I was the junior ranked aikidoka amongst very talented senior ranking practitioners in the room. They were much better at aikido than I was but I had something to offer that they perhaps did not. Very talented athletes are not always the best at things outside of their art/sport. It was really fun to offer my skills to people that needed help. I felt good about my talents and myself, as they were needed. People volunteer because they get something out of it. I got a seat at the table and companionship from people that I am still close with. We had lots of fun along the way working on issues and took time to laugh at each other and the process along the way.
I was addicted to aikido, it became my life – Sensei had us training so hard and intensely that we couldn’t think about anything else; we became completely present in our training. The outside world disappeared while we were on the mat. I became addicted to this level of training. I trained 10 hours a week and it became the center of my world. It followed naturally from this that I gave something back to my addiction, my world; I would not have been capable of only taking.
Family – While training and volunteering, the people that I was spending time with became like family. To this day I count among my closest friends in the world the people with whom I trained intensively and with whom I helped to shape Birankai. Even in my departure, I tried to leave people in place to replace me so as not to let my family down.
I was asked and then I asked others – Before Ismail Hasan Sensei (Aikido of London) left the Kenshusei program at San Diego Aikikai, he asked me to volunteer. He was taking care of the family he was leaving behind. I agreed. Next, Elizabeth Beringer asked me to be on the USAF-Western Region Advisory Council. In later years I asked others to volunteer, they also became longtime volunteers. Lyons Shihan had married and was busy running his farm when I asked him to take on a fundraising project and later to join the Board of Directors; Peterson Sensei was busy with his family and military career when I asked him to join the Board of Directors; and Cohen Sensei was busy with her family when I asked her to volunteer to help with the fundraising job and later to became Summer Camp Coordinator. They all made positive contributions and changed the face of our organization because someone asked for their time.
So, what does this history lesson teach us:
Training must be intense and martial to attract people to become long term practitioners of aikido. – In order to get people to show up several times a week to the dojo and to subsequently volunteer I think they need to become addicted to the art. The only way to do this is with very intense training. However, a caveat to this is that for various reasons that have been outlined by other people in other articles, the population of aikidoka is aging and we are not attracting as many young people to the art as we used to. With that in mind a serious commitment should be made by Birankai Teachers to develop an aikido that is both highly martial and low impact. Notice that there are very few post-menopausal women that remain in Aikido, and yet in earlier years women make up a large percentage of our membership. We need to develop a type of training that remains intense and yet that people are still able to do as bones and joints age. Get and keep people addicted even in their 50s, 60s, 70s and beyond.
Build community that people want to belong to and therefore are motivated to volunteer for at the dojo level and at the organizational level. – Without the charismatic leader that attracted me to Aikido it is difficult to attract students to become involved beyond the dojo level. Chief Instructors should consider using summer camp as a way to attract their students to become involved with and bond with the larger organization. Attending summer camp can help people feel that they belong to the larger “family” and thus hopefully motivate them to volunteer for the organization.
Ask people to volunteer. – It works. Most people like to be noticed and to think that their contribution might matter.
Cultivate leadership and volunteers. – Chief Instructors should cultivate volunteering as an expression of and a deepening commitment to one’s Aikido practice. Birankai leaders should consider how to cultivate an environment in which volunteerism is expected and acknowledged at every level and rank in the organization. This will help broaden the pool of volunteers.
Take time to have fun along the way. – Don’t try to do too much organizationally that you don’t leave time for your volunteers to play. Meetings should have time for a joke or prank or two and not be only about business.
Recognize the necessity of volunteering. – Note that many years ago we had over 1,000 members in Birankai. Our current organizational structure was built on that level of membership. A larger membership enabled the organization to support paying an Executive Director and providing a stipend to support some other organizational jobs. We have dwindled to 645 members now. The lower level of people paying dues will mean that finding volunteers is more crucial than ever…somebody else is not going to take care of it…the organization needs you. Volunteer to help with something.
Email Deb Pastors at firstname.lastname@example.org if you can give as little as 1 or 2 hours a month to help with the many tasks it takes to keep our village running and continue to spread the art of our beloved TK Chiba Shihan.