Shanti Project

The Shanti Project: Nonprofit Volunteer Support for The Elderly in a Time of Coronavirus

Charles GarfieldCharles Garfield is a psychologist, professor and lecturer, and the author of twelve books including LIFE’S LAST GIFT. He has been recognized internationally as the founder of Shanti Project, a widely acclaimed AIDS and cancer service organization ( For more than forty years, he has pioneered the development of healthcare and social service-oriented volunteer organizations in a wide variety of settings. Of these efforts, Garfield says: “Shanti’s work demonstrates that health professionals and volunteers (America’s largely unrecognized workforce) can learn to be tender with people and tough on problems as they serve those who need them most.”

A clinical professor of psychology in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California School of Medicine at San Francisco (UCSF) for nearly four decades, and a fellow of the American Psychological Association, he is currently a research scholar at the Starr King School for the Ministry at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. Wisdom of the Years

Dr. Garfield has lectured widely, addressing audiences that include a Clinton White House conference, the U.S. Olympic Committee and Head Coaches of Olympic sports, and the leadership of Oklahoma City following the bombing of that city’s federal building.

His new book, OUR WISDOM YEARS: Growing Older with Joy, Fulfillment, and No Regrets is on sale.

Volunteers are America’s unrecognized workforce. Without their contribution, especially in this time of COVID 19, we would simply not be able to care adequately for those who are elderly and/or infirmed. By training volunteers in peer counseling skills, they can make vital contributions to our most vulnerable neighbors during this most challenging time.

For more information on Shanti Project go HERE


Read the Interview

Hugh Ballou: Greetings, this is Hugh Ballou. Welcome to The Nonprofit Exchange. This is all about significant people who have a message and a story to share and some wisdom to impart. My guest today is Dr. Charles Garfield. He is way on the other coast in San Francisco, California. We are located in the Appalachian Mountains in central western Virginia. We’re in the South. But we are connected here virtually. We have asked him to share his story today. He is a professor, an author, a lecturer, and a thought leader. Welcome, Dr. Garfield. Tell us a little bit about yourself, your background, and why you are doing the Shanti Project.

Charles Garfield: Thanks for inviting me, Hugh. The Shanti Project is the love of my life from a work point of view. It’s been 46 years of training volunteers to work with people who are seriously ill, either from cancer, AIDS, or now COVID. I started out as a young psychologist on a cancer unit where people were seriously ill, but sometimes got well enough to be sent home. I always wondered what happened to them when they got home. They were still seriously ill and still needed help. I decided to start a volunteer project and to train volunteers in the various counseling skills necessary to care for people. All the individuals had to do was call a phone number and they can get a volunteer. It’s been 46 years. The project has spawned all sorts of organizations modeled after it around the world. When AIDS hit, we still existed to support people with the new disease. COVID, same story. New disease. We’re here, caring for people, doing the best we can. There has been much good work done by tens of thousands of volunteers almost the last half century.

Hugh: Half century, wow. You did say 46 years ago. How does your education and background in psychology help frame your work?

CG: I learned a lot about how to communicate with people, how to care for people, how to listen to their problems. I often say to the Shani volunteers, and it holds here as well, that if you know how to listen from the heart, speak from the heart, and act from the heart, you can make an enormous difference in the lives of people who are really up against it. A lot of what I learned from graduate school in a wonderful doctoral program in clinical psychology—I went to UC Berkeley and learned a lot about psychology and counseling and caregiving that can be taught to regular folks, to volunteers. That is the basic premise of Shanti Project: that you can train people in all walks of life in the various skills necessary to care for people who are up against it, who are dealing with one difficult situation, usually disease-related. We’re still running. We have tens of thousands of volunteers over the years who have done extraordinary work here and overseas. I am proud Shanti exists and fortunate to have founded the organization.

Hugh: What is the origin of that name?

CG: It’s a Sanskrit word that means inner peace. It roughly translates to “the peace that surpasses understanding.” It’s the kind of peace that the people who are really up against it rarely have, but sometimes get when they meet the right person in the right way, a connection between two human beings. That’s what we teach our volunteers.

Hugh: In the training for volunteers, that must be some tight protocol on how you do it. I served the mega churches for 40 years. Sometimes well-meaning people do more harm than good. Tell us about the training that people go through. When you hear about these diseases, you often want to go and hide. You certainly don’t want to be vulnerable and help people. There is a mindset and safety protocols, but there are also some behavioral norms. How do people understand the engagement process and be able to bring benefit to others?

CG: Interestingly enough, we do an enormous amount of role plays and real plays. Role plays are play-acting situations that the volunteer will likely get in to so they know what to do when they get there. We go through the same situations over and over again so that people are skilled at providing the kind of support we want them to provide.

Real play is we bring in people who are dealing with one of the illnesses we deal with and have them talk to various volunteers and do a real play. The patient will talk about situations from their life, and the volunteer will learn how to respond and get feedback from the people who are watching the interaction. There is a circle of volunteers with two people in the middle: a patient and a volunteer. They go through all sorts of scenarios based on the life of that patient. They get feedback from other volunteers and from the patient. We don’t really have problems with people saying the wrong things or doing something that was disadvantageous. Our volunteers, the feedback they get from their clients is overwhelmingly positive.

Hugh: Some volunteers want to help but don’t make the grade because they are screened out for some emotional reason or personal agenda that may not be helpful. I don’t know if there is a certification process, but how do you qualify people to put into service?

CG: You make a wonderful point. We do screen people pretty carefully. If someone has an agenda or a belief system that is theirs that they are trying to convert everybody to, that’s not good. If someone wants to be a volunteer but really should be a client, like if they have gone through something rough in their own life and they think that they are ready to serve, often it’s not an appropriate time. They need the support themselves. There are other various reasons why we would screen somebody and make sure they get some good feedback but are not allowed to be a volunteer; they are not ready for what we are providing. We are cautious about that.

Hugh: In my study of psychiatrist Murray Bowen’s work, he talks about eight leadership concepts that make us aware of themselves by studying our family of origin. Embedded in all of that work is how we show up. Leaders who are anxious spread this pandemic of anxiety. You are dealing with some of these people who have really bad situations. How do you help people manage themselves in the face of adversity and manage their own anxiety?

CG: We all have anxiety. In our current world, if you aren’t anxious, you aren’t paying attention. There’s a lot to be anxious about. If you can normalize that anxiety, and let people know that although it’s uncomfortable, it’s fairly universal right now. One specific way to deal with anxiety is to ask questions about what would mitigate it, what would make it less severe, what action steps could you take to make it less severe? We help people brainstorm. We help people think it through. Not all sources of anxiety can be dealt with. We are dealing with a pandemic that is making anyone who is paying attention anxious. What can be done during this time of the pandemic that might serve that person well in their lives?

I wrote a book recently called Our Wisdom Years. It’s about what older people do in rough times and in good times. We ask and answer the question in the book: How can you deal with times when you’re really up against it? When things are really tough, what are the best ways of handling those situations? You can take action and help mitigate the anxiety.

Hugh: It’s really hard to create a title for a book. How did you come up with yours? It’s really compelling.

CG: I get a lot of good feedback on the title. I appreciate it. One way we came up with it is by asking people what they cared about most.

When I wrote Our Wisdom Years, I was aiming at what would be the actual situations facing older people who understood that this was a different phase of life than adulthood. We are living much longer now. Some people may retire although the word doesn’t work for a lot of people. They may retire at 65-70 and live for decades after that. The fastest growing group of people in our nation are centenarians, people living over 100. If you’re 70 or 75, you may live another 25 or 30 years. That’s a whole new stage of life with a different set of potentials and possibilities. That’s why we talk about joy, fulfillment, resilience, and no regrets.

Hugh: I love it. I shared with you that as a conductor, I look at some of the profound people who have influenced our musical art form. Opera composer Giuseppe Verdi was one of them. He started with Rigoletto, went through a romantic period, and pushed past romanticism into the next era with pieces like the big requiem he wrote. The critics said he was senile, but he was so far advanced they couldn’t keep up with his thinking. They wanted a nice, neat classical composition, but he was pushing that envelope forward. He was in his 80s in that moment. Beethoven and List wrote a lot of their pieces in their senior years. This is a good precedent in many fields. Robert Shaw was conducting into his 80s and was a world influencer in his senior years. There is more to this senior thing. I appreciate you bringing it up. My peer group has shifted. When I started music ministry, my peer group was the sixth graders; now it’s the aging community. It’s a new perspective.

We have collected wisdom. When I am introduced, people use the word “speaker.” People like to say I am an expert, but I like to say I am a student of leadership. I have made so many mistakes that I am studying what caused them. Making mistakes is the culmination of wisdom.

There are a couple of things you have mentioned I would like to unpack. I would like to talk about how you actually founded your nonprofit. Before that, you have spoken about an enormous amount of volunteers. In my 32 years of working with nonprofits and their boards, one central theme is we have trouble getting volunteers. In the church, we can’t get our members to step up and volunteer to do things. What is the secret to recruiting and engaging volunteers in meaningful work?

CG: One thing I would say to anyone who is paying attention to our conversation about meaningful work is that we have never had any trouble with volunteers. Six times a year, we do trainings. Six times a year, I open the training, and I am looking at 25 or 30 potential new volunteers. If you ask the question, “How is that so? Why don’t we have any trouble?” ask yourself the question: What do you offer your volunteers? Not what they are about to give their clients, but what do you offer them? We offer volunteers a set of life skills. That’s why they keep coming back. That’s why they tell their friends. That’s why they say being a volunteer at Shanti Project is one of the most powerful and wonderful experiences they’ve ever had in their lives. It’s based on what we offer them. We teach them how to communicate, how to listen from the heart, how to speak from the heart, how to act from the heart, how to live a life of fulfillment, how to teach your clients how to do that.

That is why the book is about joy, fulfillment, resilience, and no regrets. That is what the clients at Shanti Project talk about. These are issues that are both important to the volunteers and the clients.

Hugh: Is there a median age to your volunteers?

CG: We have a lot of younger people. We have some older people. It’s across the life span. People are interested. It’s a diverse group of ages.

Hugh: You’re offering your volunteers life skills. You said something radical here. They actually invite their friends. How does that happen?

CG: They have a good experience as a volunteer. They talk about their volunteer experience to their friends, and their friends get excited and want to sign up. Then they call us. We screen those new potential volunteers. Some of them make the cut and join us. But it’s word of mouth. There is a lot of word of mouth transmission at Shanti.

Hugh: You’re not begging people to come in. You’re offering people an opportunity of service, and they have to qualify to meet that threshold.

CG: That’s exactly right. We are not begging people to volunteer, not by a long shot.

Hugh: That repels people in some sense. I saw this happen a lot in churches. People want to recruit committee members, and they say, “It’s not that much work.” You know right away they are lying to you. Why should I step up if there is not much work? I want to do something meaningful. In your experience, what is the biggest mistake leaders make in trying to recruit volunteers?

CG: I think you said it well. They beg people to come in the door and do some work. They never mention what that potential volunteer is going to get out of it. What are they going to learn? It’s not only about service—of course service is an important aspect—but there is service to the volunteer. What does the organization provide the volunteer so they will want to join you and do the work? It’s not just coercing people to do some free labor. That’s not what it’s about. It’s about life skills, teaching them things they can value.

Hugh: We have some questions from our participants. Is that okay?

CG: I’m ready.

Hugh: Great. We have Bob Hopkins in Dallas, Texas. He authored the book Philanthropy Misunderstood. He has taught me a lot about philanthropy. Bob Hopkins, you’re live.

Bob Hopkins: Dr. Garfield, how are you?

CG: Thanks for calling, Bob.

Bob: I’m an older person. I am going through boxes right now of all of my old stuff. I’m finding old letters and pictures, and I am getting teary-eyed and thinking about my whole life. I have lived longer than Hugh, which is a long time.

I had a student call me yesterday, and he said, “My girlfriend just broke up with me. I vomited this morning, and I am devastated.” I said, “You know what? God has a plan. Obviously, she’s not in the plan. God will reveal to you who it is you’re supposed to end up with at another time. You can’t have any regrets.” Then I listen to you talking about not having regrets. Thank you very much for backing me up with that young man.

Why can’t have you any regrets? What would happen if you did make a better choice? I ask people all the time, “If you had to do it over again, what would you do?” They always come up with a whole bunch of things.

CG: How do you handle those regrets? These forgiveness letters you can write, you are reading about things that have happened in the past. You might never forget the situation, but you can forgive. You can let go of the regret that people carry with them to the end of their lives. The saddest thing we have ever encountered is people on their deathbeds talking about what they have most regretted, the things they could have done something about but didn’t. When we are saying no regrets, it’s not that you don’t start out having regrets because we all have something that we may regret. It’s how you handle it. Can you lay the burden down?

Hugh: Love it. Bob, you virtually have showed up every week after being a guest a few months ago. You are now a super volunteer with SynerVision. What motivated you to participate with this and share your gifts? What was in it for you? What was the idea that made you interested?

Bob: I was at a point in my life where I decided I needed to continue to search for meaning and purpose. So far, our relationship in the two or three months I have been here has been fulfilling my needs. As long as that continues to happen, I will continue to stick around. I am a volunteer by the way. Volunteers have to be treated right. You need to be always looking at what their purpose is in being a volunteer. Because I am a nonprofit person, I have had volunteers come and go all my life. I keep going back to the ones who keep saying yes. Finally, someone says I will wear them out. Then I usually do, and they finally leave when it’s time. You can overextend your welcome, too. Therefore, I don’t want to get too pushy with my needs on you so that you one day have to say, “Bob, we’ve had enough of you. Thanks a lot, but we need to move on.”

Hugh: In my life in the church, I have fired many volunteers who thought it was a favor. You’re nowhere close to that list. Bob is a man of great talents and passion. Thank you for sharing.

Dr. Garfield, our show is sponsored by the printer of our magazine, Wordsprint. The purpose is to talk about issues that leaders face. Nothing happens without leadership. In my years in leading different initiatives, I wake up and think about, What if I had done this? I try not to do that to myself because it’s harsh. Writing a forgiveness letter to yourself. That’s brilliant. Thank you for that wisdom.

Bob has taught me about philanthropy and people showing up and contributing to an organization with their time, talent, and money. That is true philanthropy. Would you agree?

CG: Absolutely. You give in many different ways. The Shani volunteers give time, not money, and their best selves and best efforts. What we find is that people are enormously gratified by the opportunity to serve. That is why I always say that we don’t have trouble getting volunteers because they get so much out of it.

Hugh: Absolutely. Sometimes it takes a paradigm shift. In the last church I served, we abolished the word “volunteer” because we determined that asking people to volunteer was contrary to the theology we were professing. We turned the term into “members in ministry.” They were servant leaders in ministry who were given purposeful work. We were full-time, resourcing all of our members who wanted to do meaningful work. People kept coming from other churches to see what we were doing and if it was illegal. People were passionate about sharing their talents and engaging in multiple ministries of the church. Sometimes we need to take a fresh approach in how we name something or approach the opportunity. There are lots of ways leaders don’t do service to inviting people in to share their passion. They really assume it’s too much work for someone who is busy rather than letting a person determine that for themselves. Do you find that true to be in other organizations? I assume it’s not true in your organization because you’re so successful.

Bob, as I get older, and I lose some of my good friends like I did last week, I’m more conscious of how every day counts and how we want to contribute every day. This conversation today is hitting home.

Dr. Garfield, you had a concept 46 years ago, and it became Shanti Project. How did you move this into reality? There are lots of people who have ideas, but they stumble in making it work. You have obviously made this concept work. What are your main secrets for success?

CG: One secret, if it is a secret, is I didn’t know any better. I didn’t know that I couldn’t do it. If I had asked the doctors or nurses or mental health professionals, they would have told me it was impossible. Fortunately, I never asked for permission. I just went ahead and did it. By getting a list of people together who I thought might be good volunteers, by contacting each of them, by screening the ones I thought were good and selecting those people, they became the first 15 Shanti volunteers all those years ago. It was something I wasn’t sure wasn’t going to work, but I didn’t think much about failure. Failure wasn’t an option since we needed to help those people. They heard the message. They understood that this was a chance to make a difference in the lives of people who were struggling. It mattered to them. They cared about it. They showed up. They paid attention. They cared deeply. All of those things that signal the best in human beings. That’s true for the last 46 years. We are not having to coerce anybody into doing this work. They’re more than willing to join us.

Hugh: Great. It’s rewarding work. Special challenges during this time of quarantine. We are recording this several months into the COVID-19 pandemic. We have some special challenges. Some organizations are not having volunteers show up. What are the challenges today?

CG: It’s hard to know how to make a big difference in somebody’s life when you can’t meet with them, when you can’t have face-to-face contact, or at least not very easily. Special challenges are finding out what people really need. We work with some older people or who are living alone who are infirmed. How do they get food? How do they eat? They can’t go shopping. They are not supposed to go out. They may not be capable of going out physically. We provide the kind of service that people say to us they need at this particular time. We’re not so bold that we think we know all the answers. Ask your clients. Ask the people you want to serve what most they need. Go about meeting those needs as best as you can.

Hugh: What are the most important skills leaders need to teach this pool of volunteers?

CG: I mentioned a few of them. Learn to really listen from the heart. Most of the time, when we talk to someone, we pretend to be listening but are really paying attention to our own thoughts. Really listen deeply to what the person is saying to you and not what they are saying to you, what the unspoken messages are.

Then speak from the heart. Speak your truth as best you know it. Don’t pretend to be an expert. Don’t fall back on all sorts of book learning although there is nothing wrong with a good idea from a book. It may not be the source of your ultimate contribution. What do you know to be true of your own life? Share that with the other person.

Then act from the heart. Do those little things that may have seismic consequences. Little things that make a difference. One of the volunteers the other day told me that their client loved their garden but couldn’t get out into it anymore because they are physically not able. He brings his client flowers; she loves them. She can’t wait to see him because she can’t wait for the new batch of flowers. Little things that seem incidental can have tremendous consequences in the lives of people who are really shut out of participation because of COVID.

Hugh: From where I sit as a strategist, strategy is inseparable from leadership, from organizational performance. I see that strategy is a framework for engagement. People know what to do. How is setting goals helpful to people who serve the organization as volunteers?

CG: Setting goals are important. Let me very briefly go through the five elements we teach our volunteers that leaders can benefit from.

First, what is your mission? Mission and goals are different. Goals are steps toward completing the mission. But what is the overarching mission? Goals are dreams with deadlines.

Hugh: Written down.

CG: Yes. Short-term, intermediate, and long-term. Mission first, then goals. Then feedback. Who do you get feedback from where you can make an assessment about what you’re doing? Feedback isn’t always negative. It can be positive reinforcement, too.

Next is resources, especially training. What resources do you need to excel? Do you have the training you need to do the work you are committed to doing?

Then rewards. What do you want out of it? What are the ultimate rewards you get? Mission, goals, feedback, resources, and rewards.

Hugh: Wow. That’s a good list. Turning back to Bob.

Bob: Hugh, you asked me what I am getting out of working with you. I said I am trying to find my purpose, etc. No matter how old you are, networking is important in terms of who I am and what I do. I teach it to my students. It’s important to gather around you a circle of influence, people who will make things happen for you and with you. This is what I have learned from you. I have gathered and gained so many new friends that I would have never known had I not participated with you. That doesn’t mean I have to know everybody in the world, but I do think God has a plan as to why I am supposed to meet with the folks who I have met with already who are going to be part of what I do in the future.

Then of course, you and I put on a youth and philanthropy international conference last week. We had 60-75 students, people from around the world. Had you not been able to host it on Zoom, I would not have had the excellence and turnout I got. You’re a professional, and I’m a novice. So you made it happen. Thank you very much.

Plus you have a magazine called Performance. I used to have a magazine as well. I’m jealous because you still have it. I did a good 12-year run. But we are going to redo the magazine and make it not about nonprofit leaders, but about donors, people who are philanthropists, who are giving of their resources, time, and money to nonprofits. I am going to participate in that effort. I know the printed word is going out, but for some of us, that’s what we love. I love magazines and newspapers instead of Googling stuff all the time. That’s what I wanted to say.

Hugh: Good. It’s a two-way street. *Sponsored by Wordsprint*

Dr. Garfield, what do you want to leave us with today? This has been so helpful.

CG: The most important thing I can say that we haven’t said so far is embedded in the answer to the question, “What are you most grateful for in your life?” When I take a look at how people respond to Shanti Project and my book, one of the things they talk about most frequently when they review their lives is what they are most grateful for. Anyone paying attention, ask yourself, “What am I most grateful for in my life? How can I build on those things to make sure I enter in the later stages of my life with joy, fulfillment, and no regrets?”

Hugh: Thank you, Dr. Garfield, for being our guest today.

CG: Thank you very much.


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