A world without Susan J Ellis

It’s impossible for me to imagine a world without Susan J Ellis. Not just because she was such a driving force in the field of volunteer management for decades, but because she will live on through those of us who carry on the work. We carry her memory with us, her spirit, her energy. We remember the things she said and the way she relentlessly kept us moving forward even in the face of negating attitudes and behind-the-times practices.

Although I’ve been taking a break from blogging and being as involved in the field since becoming a parent, something Susan told me once has given me comfort and confidence to know that I can still get back to that world when I’m ready. This also ties in with the first time I met Susan at the National Summit on Volunteer Engagement Leadership in St. Paul, Minnesota in July 2017.
In addition to attending and presenting at the summit, I was also invited to a pre-conference meetup of bloggers. I had been running Volunteer Management Snark for a couple of years which didn’t feel like a “real” blog when compared to the writing of the bloggers there, like Rob Jackson, Meridian Swift, Elisa Kosarin, and others. But I went because I wanted to meet these folks and because Susan had invited me. She treated me like I belonged at the “grownup table” and I can’t even begin to tell you how amazing that felt.

Photo of the summit bloggers meetup taken by Jayne Cravens via webcam

During one of the breaks, I visited the summit bookstore and found Susan with a collection of books from Energize. We talked about many things and I wrote some of it down so I could remember it. (Unfortunately, I didn’t take great notes so parts of this story are missing!) She said, “I’m going to tell you something someone once told me…” She then relayed a story of her 25-year-old self observing a group of people picketing against volunteer involvement. She asked them, “are any of you getting paid to be here?” Her point, of course, was that the picketers were also volunteers. I’ve always appreciated the way that she questioned things like that. An organizer she knew told her then that she needed to stay in volunteer management and she said, “I’m telling you the same thing.” She then signed the book I bought, By the People: A History of Americans as Volunteers, by her and Katie Campbell. She wrote, “To Liza – who will definitely be someone who will add to this history. So glad you’re sticking your neck out!” I’ve kept this book on my desk at work and look at that inscription whenever I need a reminder that I’ll get back to “sticking my neck out” when the time comes. For now, my focus is on my family and I’ll get back to speaking and blogging more when I’m ready.

Although I never told her, I considered her one of my mentors. I was always learning from her and often found myself thinking, “what would Susan do” in challenging situations at work. After I got married and added my husband’s last name to mine, I kept my maiden name (Jacobson) as a middle name so I could be Liza J Dyer. The J is an homage to some of the people I admire in the field and who I credit with my continuing commitment to this work, including Susan, Rob Jackson, Martin J Cowling, Jayne Cravens, and Sue Jones. (I don’t think any of these folks know this incredibly nerdy fact about me.)

I’ve heard some people say that Susan’s style wasn’t for them. Well, whose style is for everyone anyway? We need all of us pushing and pulling in different ways to keep moving forward. Susan’s impact on volunteer leadership is undeniable and I am forever grateful for her not being afraid to rock the boat. Criticism is a form of collaboration, after all.

I’ll end with a quote from Jean Luc Picard, because Susan and I both loved Star Trek and this reminds me of her: “Things are only impossible until they’re not.” Something I’ll keep in mind as I carry on in a world universe that was lucky enough to have Susan in it for a time.

Learn more about Susan’s life and join me in supporting the newly created Susan J Ellis Foundation. There will also be a virtual memorial taking place on Sunday, March 10 at 12 pm Pacific (convert to your time zone). The memorial link will work at that time.

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