On Volunteering, Optimizing Metrics, and more

This winter break I volunteered at the Southern California Vipassana Center in Joshua Tree near LA.

On being free:

I’ve done a couple of 10-day meditation retreats in the past through the Vipassana Organization and the neat thing is that it is completely free.
Not even that it’s a non-profit, but actually free. You don’t pay for your room, the facilities, the food, heat, water, the volunteer’s labor, the teachers’ labor, anything.
The entire organization is run purely on donations and volunteering. And on top of that, only accepts donations from people who have completed a 10-day retreat. There’s no giant wealthy philanthropist, no big government institution that supporting the Vipassana Organization. Every cent is donated by people who truly want to help and support others in their meditation.

If you’re wondering why people are so dedicated to this, I would honestly suggest taking a 10-day course yourself. It truly is something best learned about at an experiential level–not just an intellectual level. See where/when courses are here: dhamma.org

The points I’m trying to make here are:

1) It’s not just donation run, but pure in a way. Only people who have experienced a course can donate for a future person’s experience at a course.

2) The amount of money needed to construct and maintain a center like this is massive. So it truly is a massive feat that it was paid for by only donations.

With that in mind, let’s continue.

On optimizing metrics and its issues 

I volunteered as a Course Manager. Most of the other volunteers work in the kitchen to prepare the food for 100+ people every day. My job was providing the other non-food logistical support. This is especially critical since the students can really only talk to the manager and teachers. (Silence among students is maintained so they can focus)

Despite it being my first time, I was weirdly very prepared for this exact position. My volunteer work in high school and my job as a TA in college have a similar required skill set: Keep track of many logistical details, have strong communication skills, and in a large organization serve as a connection point between a large group or groups (students/TAs) and leadership (meditation teachers/college professors).

So I’ve seen some of the issues that these organizations face: Things slip between the cracks, miscommunication creates hurdles, leadership becomes disengaged, etc.
These past organizations have been: libraries, schools, and a university–all institutions that have pretty much stood the test of time for a while now.

But weirdly enough, this new organization–the Vipassana Organization–was one of the most well-run systems I’ve ever seen. Somehow despite the fact that no one was being paid, everyone did their part and put in their full effort so things were less likely to slip through the cracks.

I was trying to figure out why this is the case and I think it may be the addition of a metric.
An oversimplification to get the point across is that at a job, you have this metric of money or hours. The goal might be that money/hours corresponds to work done, but that’s not always the case. People are people. We’ll find a way to optimize money/hours without actually optimizing work done.

An exaggeration of this in action might be something like:

And this issue with metrics holds true in all sorts of situations.

Most notably for me: We want to optimize learning, so we assign this metric of points, a grading system. And students inevitably find ways to optimize the grade without optimizing learning–even without resorting to cheating.

Students are often in a position where we have to choose between optimizing a full understanding of a topic vs optimizing just the grade. It sounds weird, but it happens wayyy more than you’d think.

Example from my life: Professor shows how to carry out the mechanics of a statistical test. In real life, a computer would carry out those mechanics for you. It’s way more important that you intuitively understand what the test is doing and under what situations it should even be used. But if you have a limited amount of time to study (not to mention all your other classes)…for the sake of your grade you’re probably better off just memorizing the mechanics so you’re ready come exam time.
After the exam, there’s no way you’re gonna remember the mechanics (it’s not even useful for the future). So what was the point?

The solution to this is probably a huge overhaul of both the structure and the mentality towards the education system… :/

Anyways–the reason that didn’t happen in the case of the Vipassana center is that there is no extra metric. No dollar value, point value, tracking of hours, nothing!
So there’s only one thing you’re trying to optimize.
(Dāna is a Pali word used to describe the service work that comes from a place of generosity. It’s the first Pāramitā on Wikipedia here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pāramitā–and yes! I am named for that)

The only reason these adults are sacrificing their time–often using up precious vacation days–is solely from the desire to do good. They don’t get any perks–there’s no volunteer-of-the-month posted anywhere. There’s only one thing they’re optimizing: service–particularly service out of good heart. There’s no conflict of interest then.

On unity and diversity 

Another interesting consequence of people coming out of goodwill only is that you end up with people from all walks of life.

I got to work with and talk to: Air force veterans, special ed teachers, chemists, Hollywood producers, university performance arts manager, stay at home parents.

Sometimes I feel like I spent most of my time in college in a bubble in a bubble in a bubble.

Listening to different people and their life stories and then working alongside them as equals really gives a better perspective in life

With such a diverse group of people, most of whom have never worked in a kitchen before, it can somewhat be surprising that the center runs as well as it does. One person at the end of a course asked what catering company we hired, and was shocked to learn it was all by a group of inexperienced volunteers who hadn’t even met before, let alone worked in an industrial kitchen before!

Truly wanting to do and be good both unifies us and creates for a diverse group. 

One thought on “On Volunteering, Optimizing Metrics, and more

  1. Great experience sharing Parmita! Couldn't agree more with you about being in a bubble otherwise and getting to learn a lot from a variety of people with such volunteering work. Keep it up!


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