Home Dan Bassill Dan Bassill Interview
Dan Bassill Interview

Paul DiPerna:

Dan... You have been organizing volunteers and numerous activities for more than 30 years now. Your track record is hugely impressive, especially considering that so much of this work has been done outside regular working hours.

  1. What sparked your passion for volunteerism?
  2. Were there highly influential people or events?
 PDF version of the article.

Dan BassillBassill's Bio

Dan Bassill:

Thanks for taking time to ask me these questions.

I was not this committed when I first became a volunteer in 1973. I was just beginning an advertising career with the Montgomery Ward corporation at that time. One day while I was in the company cafeteria with a co-worker I saw an ad recruiting volunteers for a tutoring program. She said gee, that looks like fun. Why don't we do it? I said, ok and within a couple of weeks I was sitting next to a fourth grade boy who lived in the Cabrini Green Public Housing Development near the Montgomery Ward Corporate Headquarters in Chicago.

During my first year I did not always want to go to tutoring after a long day at work, but every week I left my one hour tutoring session feeling energized. At the end of my first year the boy's mother said, "He talks about you all the time. Please tutor again next year." So I did. At the same time I was talked into being one of the volunteers who led the program. At the end of the second year I was given the job of leading the program. That was the summer of 1975.

Each year since then has been a routine of recruiting kids and volunteers in Aug/Sept, keeping them involved each week from Sept. to May, and ending the year with a recognition dinner in early June. Each April I had to recruit new volunteers to be leaders on the committee of employee volunteers who organized the program with me. During this annual process, I also learned how difficult this is, and began to learn from the media, and from books I read, how unfair our education system is and how poverty causes numerous educational disadvantages for youth living in these areas.

Over the years some of the kids who I bonded with were victims of shootings, or of fatal diseases caused by extreme poverty (diabetes and asthma). It was a personal tragedy when we lost these kids. And a personal frustration that we could not find the resources we needed to do the work we know we could do to help them. At the same time, I've seen many youth blossom under the guidance of their mentors. I've also learned how much such programs enrich the lives of the volunteers, not just the kids.

By repeating this process over 30 years and seeing how so many lives have been affected, including my own, I've become very committed and passionate about this work. This is a journey we hope to help many adults go through in their lifetime.

Paul DiPerna:

How has your post-secondary education affected the way you think about organizing and promoting volunteering?

Dan Bassill:

My post secondary education has had four distinct phases:

  1. I studied history in college, which teaches you to learn from the lessons of others and apply that learning to the innovations of your own life;
  2. I spent three years in the Army in the Military Intelligence service. Here I learned a practical, and unique, application of learning and applying knowledge to decision making;
  3. When I joined Montgomery Ward as an advertising copywriter in 1973 I had absolutely no previous experience in advertising. Thus, I learned my craft by studying the advertising done by others, and applying what I learned to my own work;
  4. When I became the leader of a tutor/mentor program, I had no previous experience leading such a program. I was mentored by others who encouraged me to treat my volunteer work like a business and document my goals and vision as part of a planning process. I was also encouraged to learn who else operated tutor/mentor programs in the Chicago region and to create regular meetings where I could learn from them, and they from me.

I'm still applying all of these habits of learning and have added even more as my network has expanded over the past 30 years. In my advertising I learned from advertisers who sold apparel while I was selling lawn sprinklers and automotive parts. In my tutoring and mentoring I learned from the technology work we were doing as Wards downsized, and from the advertising that I did to communicate information regularly to large groups of people. Using the Internet I now learn from people throughout the world.

Paul DiPerna:

Is there a particular individual or organization, outside of the United States, through whom you have learned valuable insights which have carried over to Cabrini Connections or Tutor/Mentor Connection?

Dan Bassill:

I really learn from many organizations, in the US and abroad. When I was first beginning to use the Internet about 8 years ago, I connected with some distance- learning groups in Australia. I feel they were further ahead in this area than anything I was aware of. Since then I've found many people posting ideas about creativity, innovation, collaboration, knowledge management, etc, and all of those ideas are important to the type of learning and innovation I do.

Paul DiPerna:

In the early years of your volunteering with Montgomery Ward (1973-1990), do you think the company was doing something particularly special - compared to other similar companies - in terms of encouraging employees to reach out to the local community and help?

Dan Bassill:

What Wards did that was special was that they did not interfere or use the volunteer program to promote their business. My role as a volunteer was completely separate from my employment with the company. Yet over many years, my role as a volunteer expanded my network within the company and helped me be more effective at my job, and with my volunteer work. Had the company dictated how I was to spend my volunteer time, or put barriers on the ideas I was innovating, I'm not sure I would have stayed with the project for as long as I did.

On the other hand, the company was responsive to the requests we made for help. I was allowed to recruit employees, putting flyers on everyone's desks. I was provided with free printing and mail services. I had access to all sorts of items for our holiday parties. When I became the programs leader in 1975, there was no central office for program leaders to gather and keep their work. Thus, the ideas of the program were distributed in many different places. The company gave me a small room for an office and I was able to gather the history and ideas of the program into that single place. This was critically important because I was able to learn from the work that had been done before me, and use that to innovate what was to come in the future.

Over the period of 1975 to 1990 we had to move to several different locations in the corporate complex and each time the company was able to find space for our operations. Over the years we created a trust that within the company that gave me special privileges that enabled me to keep leading the program. For instance, I was the only person in the corporate complex, including the CEO, who had keys to open doors to the outside streets, other than the security personnel. I needed these keys to unlock the doors for tutoring events in the evening and on the weekends.

By the late 1980s I had a high-level advertising management position, where I was the key liaison between the advertising department, the merchandise departments and the marketing executives. In day long meetings I'd meet with senior vice presidents of different divisions to build advertising plans. Often these meetings stretched into the evenings. However, there were many times when I'd get a call from the corporate security officers telling me that kids were outside waiting for the doors to be opened for tutoring. I'd have to leave, and the meetings ended. I could not have done that had I not built up a huge amount of respect for the program among company leaders.

Paul DiPerna:

What is your take on "social entrepreneurship"? It is a movement that seems to have gained a lot of momentum in the past few years. What are some major challenges facing social entrepreneurs today?

Dan Bassill:

I think there have always been people working in innovative ways to solve the worlds problems.

Some times they work on a very small scale. Some times on a larger stage. The term social entrepreneurship just gives it a fresh description. I think the challenges now are the same as always.

Too little time; too much disconnect and isolation between people and organizations who are innovating solutions to problems; and the people who benefit from these solutions (which includes donors, governments, communities and individuals). There are too few resources, and too much time spent finding and keeping resources. The last couple of chapters of the book titled "How to Change the World", which tells the Ashoka story, outlined some of the challenges. We've not yet harnessed the Internet in building connections between people who focus on the same issues, or to connect resource providers with these people on a consistent basis.

Paul DiPerna:

Philanthropy is undergoing a major transformation right now. Organizations like the Gates Foundation, Kauffman Foundation, Omidyar Network, and Skoll Foundation appear to be changing the ways grants are awarded and how funded projects are evaluated.

How has a changing philanthropy landscape affected the way you do outreach and raise money for your organizations and programs?

Dan Bassill:

Until donors fund the type of infrastructure that I am creating to support an entire universe of volunteer-based tutor/mentor programs throughout Chicago, which is a basic knowledge library connecting the different organizations involved in tutor/mentor work in Chicago, with others around the US, then philanthropy will not have changed enough to make a dent in significant social problems.

This is because problems are complex, and the same problem is spread to many places around the world. It takes years to create a solution, in one location, let alone in hundreds or thousands of different locations.

It will never happen until we can find ways to distribute innovation and operating funds more consistently to all of the sub contractors who need to be involved in any place in solving any problem. As long as grant makers support a competitive process of project-based grant making, there will be too much time spent looking for money, and too few winners, meaning some people will be funded some of the time, but not all of the time and most people will be funded only part of the time, and not most of the time.

None of the donors or foundations that are giving away their money got rich or built their industries based on this kind of inconsistent cash flow.

"this can happen faster if they can find access
to philanthropic capital for innovation"

The big guys could change that, using the technology a few of them have invented. It's not happening yet... at least as far as I can see. The little guys might create these changes, despite the obstacles of inadequate resources.

However, this can happen faster if they can find access to philanthropic capital for innovation.

Paul DiPerna:

Do you see any particular philanthropic organizations providing useful/innovative models for making judgments and creating effective distribution systems?

Dan Bassill:

There is such a distance between me and the philanthropic sector that I really don't have an answer for this question.

I do have a process for getting the answer.

The links library at T/MC is organized into categories of information that I think are important for people involved in tutor/mentor programs (donors, leaders, volunteers, youth, policy makers, etc.).

These represent information I've already located. However, they also represent an interactive worksheet that other people can use to submit new links, based on what they know, or to rate the links I've posted, based on how valuable the information is to users.

Thus, the Internet makes it possible to gather knowledge from all over the world and to create blueprints of our questions and our knowledge. These blueprints can constantly change, and different users can contribute to them, or even organize them differently.

We could add your question to the section on fund raising links, as a category, and then work with others who are more connected to philanthropic circles than I am to begin to collect examples of philanthropic organizations who are providing useful/innovative models for making judgments.

You could also put this on your site, and collect the information there. Then I'd only need to link to you to make this information available to visitors of the T/MC site.

The value of this system is that anyone can draw information from this knowledge library at any time, and use it to build more and better tutor/mentor programs in more places. As people begin to innovate better programs by learning and borrowing ideas from others, we hope they will update their links in the knowledge library so that other people can then innovate even better ideas by learning from them.

Using this strategy we can grow good programs from year to year, but only if we can also find the dollars that are needed to put this knowledge to work as constant support for process improvement.

Paul DiPerna:

Can you give us a quick snapshot of T/MC?

How many kids, volunteers, and what cities are involved?

Dan Bassill:

I encourage you to create a visual image of what the T/MC is..

Think of a pebble dropped into a pond of water. It creates circles of ripples that are stronger near where the pebble landed and weaker as they extend further. The larger the pebble, the larger the circles.

The first circle of the T/MC is the single tutor/mentor program we lead in Chicago, which is Cabrini Connections.

While we started this program in 1993 to serve 7th to 12th grade teens, its roots extend back to 1965 when a small group of Montgomery Ward employees began to provide tutoring/mentoring to 2nd to 6th grade Cabrini Green kids one night each week. I joined that program in 1973 and became its leader in 1975. From 1975 to 1992, more than 3,000 kids and 3,000 volunteers were engaged for one to 25 consecutive years.

We started Cabrini Connections in 1993 with seven volunteers and 5 7th to 9th grade teens and since then, more than 480 teens have participated from one to 7 consecutive years, along with more than 650 volunteers. These people are the most directly connected to the T/MC and what it does. Some of these volunteers helped us create the T/MC. They continue to help raise the money it takes to operate the T/MC and Cabrini Connections.

The second circle consists of 300-400 locations in the Chicago region that offer some form of tutoring and/or mentoring in the non-school hours.

These are organizations who have responded to our surveys since 1994, or participated in conferences, or that we have learned of through networking. In total these organizations serve less than 15,000 youth in structured volunteer-based tutor/mentor programs. A 1997 survey conducted by the Associated Colleges of Illinois included these programs and public schools and was responded to by 272 organizations. This study showed that 33,923 youth were in programs that offered some form of tutoring or mentoring, but only 12, 754 were in programs that focused primarily on these services. This was out of a school aged population of more than 500,000 youth, of which more than 200,000 live in neighborhoods of high poverty (based on 1990 census information).

We have communicated regularly with these programs yearly with print newsletters, email, and face to face events such as the May and November conference. We have built a media campaign that has generated public awareness for tutoring/mentoring and we have led volunteer recruitment and fund raising activities that have resulted in more than $2,500,000 in new money devoted to volunteer based programs, as well as new volunteers for many of these programs.

Dan Bassill

The third circle consists of people in the Chicago region who have been exposed to our media messages, or who have received our printed or email newsletters. These are the people we want to involve as volunteers, leaders, donors, business partners, etc. Or people who are already involved who we want to connect with each other, and with the information on our web sites and in our conferences. Our media have reached more than 3 million people in many years (via news and radio/TV interviews). Our printed newsletter mail list has more than 13,000 listings. Our web site has received more than 150,000 visits since 1998. Our monthly email goes out to at least 4,000 people, while our email networking in forums and lists services reaches many more than that.

The fourth circle consists of people beyond Chicago, in other cities and other countries. These are people we have connected to via print newsletters, via email and via our web sites. These are people in other cities who operate tutor/mentor programs, or who operate networks that support such programs, or who are in business, universities, media, etc. As a result of this outreach our ideas are being used in many places, and the web sites are visited by people from many places.

In the Jim Cory, from Madison, Wisconsin, setting up the map gallery which is on our web site to point people to tutor/mentor programs. It resulted in IUPUI (Indiana University-Purdue University-Indianapolis) rebuilding the T/MC site in 2005. And it has led to the growth of mentoring networks in Detroit and Long Beach.

The fifth circle consists of leaders, celebrities, foundation leaders and people who we have not yet connected with, but who need to embrace the T/MC vision as their own, and use their visibility and their brains to help us innovate more and better ways to help kids in Cabrini Connections and other tutor/mentor programs get the range of learning and mentoring that they need from birth to careers.

Thus, the result of the T/MC will be that we are able to do more for the kids we mentor in Cabrini Green. We have to create an industry that supports tutor/mentor programs throughout the world, just to have the tools and ideas and resources to have a greater impact on our own kids.

Paul DiPerna:

How do your interests in knowledge management and social network analysis tie into your T/MC activities (present or future)?

Dan Bassill:

I've learned to do what I do and think the way I do because I've learned to learn from others. As I've built the T/MC I've been validated by the many different people who have said thank you in one way or the other for creating this resource for them to use.

As I've expanded my learning I've created a section of links on the T/MC site that point to other web sites that demonstrate ideas of process improvement, knowledge management, innovation, creativity, visual thinking, mind mapping, SNA, etc. These represent a collective intelligence that I hope to harness to support the process I described in the question above.

Until we can visualize the image I described of the pebble in the rock, and illustrate the impact of larger pebbles, or of throwing the rock in the water, week after week for many years, or choosing different rocks for different purposes, too few people will understand what were talking about and how it is in their own self interest to respond.

Paul DiPerna:

What is OHATS? And how has it benefited T/MC?

Dan Bassill:

OHATS stands for "Organizational History and Tracking System". Too many community initiatives disappear or experience slow growth because they do not document their history and accomplishments in a systematic way that encourage learning and avoids replication of mistakes.

As often happens in volunteer-led work, as people come and go, so do important lessons about how to do the work. OHATS provides an easy, research-based method for documenting lessons, accomplishments and organizational history to facilitate learning by current members, new members, and other wishing to learn and model the organization.

Because OHATS is web-based, it allows for multiple members of the organization and those outside of the organization to share how they are contributing to its history, using it as a model, and building on its success.

OHATS is a documentation system that enables any organization, but especially a virtual organization where everyone is united by vision rather than structure, to learn from its actions and to demonstrate its impact over time.

Steve Roussos introduced this idea to me in 1999. He had been part of a work group at the University of Kansas that originated the idea in its work with a Kansas City network.

We were able to get a grant from a foundation in 1999 to set up the OHATS, but have not been able to get repeat funding since then to make the needed enhancements that would make it more useful to more people. However, we have continued to use it to document actions and endorsements. Thus, you can scroll through a list of more than 600 actions recorded since 1999 and get a much richer understanding of what the T/MC is doing.

We're moving OHATS to a new hosting system as I write this so that we can keep the spammers out, and so we can create more interactive reports. OHATS is not only a documentation tool. It is a training tool. It shows the key actions an organization must repeat daily if it is to achieve its mission.

In most organizations only a few people really think daily of how their own actions influence the mission and success of the organizations. The appraisal and accountability process is terrible, thus there is much discord among those who do the work and those who take the credit and share the wealth.

In OHATS we ask recorders to say what impact the action had on the mission. What is the potential long term impact. Which focus area did the action impact? If people learn to think cause and effect, they will learn to discard actions that don't relate to mission, and be reinforced in repeating actions that do impact mission.

One of the things we've learned is how difficult it is to motivate/discipline/reward people for taking the time to document what they do. This has been made more difficult by not having the funding to staff this project consistently since 2000 to innovate the enhancements that might have made it easier or more rewarding for people to document.

Paul DiPerna:

I understand mapping analysis is increasingly important for you and your colleagues. What kinds of maps do you use, and why do you use them?

Dan Bassill:

There are two types of mapping:

  1. geographic mapping;
  2. network and idea mapping.

When I say geographic mapping, I'm talking about creating maps of Chicago using a Geographic Information systems (GIS) application. Without using a geographic map to show where a problem is distributed in a city/country/world, we will always have an inconsistent distribution of resources and solutions in most of the places where the problem persists.

By mapping locations of poverty and poor schools, and locations of tutor/mentor programs, we can see where existing programs are and point resources to those programs on a more consistent basis. We can see where the voids are and encourage business/community partners to create new programs to fill voids.

If the leadership of a community uses maps like business uses them to plan where to put new stores, or to increase market share, we would begin to see a growth of more and better programs in more of the places where they are needed.

As with OHATs, we've never had a significant investment to develop our mapping strategy. Yet with the help of volunteers we have maps on the Internet that demonstrate our goals, and we have a Program Locator that people can use to search by zip code to find tutor/mentor programs in specific areas. These listings show up on a Google map that program leaders can use to search for partners and supporters within their geographic area.

We seek to go a step further with our GIS to use maps in our advertising and public awareness campaign, and to use maps to help stimulate the growth of community collaborations that include business, churches, hospitals, universities and tutor/mentor programs.

Mr. Obama & Mr. Bassill

Since nonprofits don't have dollars for advertising, they are inconsistent in getting their message to the public, and thus the public does not understand who they are, where they are, and does not respond consistently with commitments of volunteers and dollars. Yet, the newspapers in every city feature negative news such as kids being killed, gang activities, crime, poor schools, etc. Every so often these are front page or feature stories. Our aim has been to use maps to tell THE REST OF THE STORY following any of these media stories.

We demonstrate this in the Map Gallery at this page.

Following high profile stories we've created maps that show where the story took place, the demographics of an area 1 mile around the incident location, and the locations of schools on probation, as well as any tutor/mentor programs in the area.

We've also added layers of information showing businesses, churches, hospitals and universities, and major access roads through the area. We've written editorial essays that go with the maps, which talk about the negative news and show that poverty and poor schools contribute to the crime and violence. We show that tutor/mentor programs are working to change this, then talk about the existing programs (or lack thereof) in the neighborhood. Then we show that there are businesses, churches, etc. in the area who could be investing time and money into building tutor/mentor programs, and there are roads through these neighborhoods that enable people from the suburbs who work in the city to be volunteers at any tutor/mentor program along the route as they go home from work each week.

Our aim is to have a team of students/volunteers create these map analysis reports within 24-48 hours of the media story and have them on the web site so media can use them for follow up, and so the public can use them to determine where and how to get involved.

Since negative news is random and occurs in different parts of the city at different times of the year, our ability to follow each news story creates advertising that draws attention to every neighborhood, and every tutor/mentor program in the city.

While we can use the maps for advertising, we can also teach business, foundations and other leaders to use them for analysis and to build a distribution of resources from their institutions to the tutor/mentor programs in the areas where they do business.

As more leaders use this tool, more will follow, and there will be a better distribution of tutor/mentor programs in all parts of the region.

I have a couple of presentations in the Tutor/Mentor Institute section that further illustrates our aim for using GIS maps.

The second form of mapping is concept mapping.

Until we can create blueprints, that work the same way people use blueprints to build tall buildings, we won't understand the range of people and/or organizations who need to be involved with kids at different age levels as the kids grow up.

Dr. James Heckman, an Economist at the University of Chicago, and a Nobel Prize winner, did a study that talked about investing in kids and he focused on the need to continue support for kids as they grow from birth to careers.

I'd like to take that a step further and create a set of online, interactive blueprints that illustrate his concepts, and that enable us to collect the knowledge of anyone in the world and create a links library that people can draw from to understand the work being done by the various subcontractors at any stage on this blueprint.

In other words, I'm not suggesting that I, or any small group of people, get in a room and create a blueprint based on just what we know and what we choose to dictate as policy that everyone else has to follow for operating tutor/mentor programs or for raising kids.

Just the opposite, I want to create an open source model that enables anyone in the world to add what they already know to this blueprint and take what they learn and apply it in innovation and in creating better ways to help the kids they're already working with.

Furthermore, I want this to be used in guiding funding and distribution of dollars so there is a more consistent investment at every stage of the development of a child.

We all understand that if all of the subcontractors and workers involved at any stage of building a building dont get paid, or dont do their work correctly, the job does not get completed. With our blueprint maybe we can transfer this thinking into funding of all of the organizations who need to be involved in helping kids to careers.

I have expressed my ideas with words. Until I recruit visual communicators who express these ideas with maps and visual images, most people won't read most of the words and those who do won't understand most of what I'm talking about.

Paul DiPerna:

Some organizations have started offering social networking and wiki "farms" as services.. somewhat similar in the way companies like Blogger, Typepad, LiveJournal, and Blogspot began offering blog farms the last five years.

In fact a lot of folks are now buzzing about Ning, which offers customizable/pre-made (lack of a better word) social networks.  SocialText and PB Wiki have also rolled out new versions of their wiki farm services.  Plone offers wikis with social networking capabilities (check Omidyar Network and Social Edge sites for examples).

All of these services have been revamped in the past six months. It seems like we could be reaching a point where we might see small-scale social network websites take off.

Has T/M C considered using these new types of services to try and merge all those circles you stated in question no. 5?

Would that be constructive?

Dan Bassill:

There are so many different tools emerging that it's impossible to keep up, thus, you've mentioned many things that I'm not aware of. I'm not a techy person myself. I see concepts and see innovative ways to use them. However, until I find people with time/talent to put these ideas to work, they just remain good ideas.

I think the growth of these social network circles creates a different problem and potential. There are more and more places where people can go to network and get information, while the time to learn and network online still is limited by a 24 hour day, and the other priorities that people have. Thus, if we're trying to draw on the wisdom of crowds, we're first going to need to figure a way to attract large numbers of people to places where we can draw upon this wisdom.

Based on the current trend there will be dozens, or thousands, of places where you can go to network, learn, make a donation, be a volunteer, etc.

It will be a challenge for people to figure out which SN sites are the most productive.

Those who provide ways to do this may be the leaders in the next stage of the growth of social networks. I predict a fierce competition among hosts, for the limited participation time that is available.

I fear that this will benefit those who have the ability to innovate and the resources to put ideas in to actions.

March 26, 2007

Tutor/Mentor Institute, LLC, c/o Merchandise Mart PO Box 3303, Chicago, Il. 60654 Phone. Skype #dbassill; FAX 312-787-7713; email: tutormentor2@earthlink.net | Powered by OpenSource!