From Becoming the Change We Seek: Stories from CEOs in the Voluntary Sector.

Kate O’Day
CEO, Gateway
Birmingham, Alabama

Author Otto Scharmer posed a simple yet powerful question 20 years ago at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It is a familiar question to anyone who has worked in child and family services for any length of time. Noting the failure of major social institutions and the devastating consequences we are experiencing, Scharmer asked, “Why do our systems produce results that no one is happy with?” (Wilson, 2018). Answering this question led him to develop Theory U, which “facilitates a shift in individual and collective awareness of the systems and social fields in which we are embedded. The resulting collective shift in awareness fosters collaborative action for systems change motivated by a shared sense of higher purpose” (Wilson, 2018). In simpler terms, we could say that Scharmer discovered that we must be the change we seek in order to meet the unprecedented challenges of our time.

This volume of essays is focused on – and dedicated to – the executive and voluntary leadership of child and family services organizations. Its purpose is to highlight the unique history, capacity, contributions, and future promise of this extraordinary and longstanding movement. Further, we wish to shine a spotlight on the unique challenges and opportunities in the role of CEO within these organizations, as the face and drivers of evolving this field. These are the people who are leading change by becoming changed themselves, as you will see in their stories. It may be that what they are doing can only currently be done from the place that is known as the “voluntary sector.”

Briefly, the voluntary sector is defined as “the part of the economy that consists of non- profit-making organizations, as opposed to the public and private sectors” (Random House Unabridged Dictionary, n.d.). It is also variously known as the independent sector, community sector, nonprofit sector and, civic sector, among others (Wikipedia, 2019). Efforts to provide charitable relief to those in need in order to advance the common good are as old as organized religion. At least one corporation dedicated to the purpose can purportedly be traced as far back as 1290 in Wales (The Open University, 2015).

However, most such efforts generally emerged spontaneously in the United States and England in the 18th and 19th centuries and predated government intervention in such areas as food security, disaster relief, animal and child welfare, care for the aged, public health, public education, and more.

There is something uniquely American about how the voluntary sector operates in the United States. There are an estimated 1.8 million nonprofits in this country (Faulk et al., 2021) with staggering breadth, depth, and scope of missions, and that number continues to grow. Management consultant and educator Peter Drucker called the voluntary sector the “third third” due to its position between the governmental and private business economic quarters. This sector of the American economy, so often overlooked and equally often severely underappreciated, is unique in its place in the global world order, in its way of being, in its influence and impact, in its history, and in its promise for the future. These organizations, uniquely both initiated and governed by volunteers, provide for the existence of the arts, for alternatives to corporate for- profit financial institutions and services including health care (among them large hospitals and healthcare systems), offer a system of distribution of charitable resources to the intended recipients, promote animal advocacy, rescue and care, civic engagement, educational offerings, institutions of higher learning, charities, think tanks, foundations, and all manner of innovative social and philanthropic initiatives. These organizations are the embodiment of a coming together and coming forth – a willingness, a sense of duty, and an imperative – on the part of the citizenry to shift its collective awareness and action to meet the needs of its neighbors and community, and to improve the lives of their fellow humans.

The genesis of these organizations – freely and voluntarily formed, governed, and sustained – gives them unique characteristics and capacities, completely unlike those of governmental institutions or business enterprises. They offer a unique combination of creative entrepreneurialism and altruistic aims that is unduplicated in any other corporate form.

This is an excerpt. To read the full article and other essays in Becoming the Change We Seek, download a PDF.



Faulk, L., et al. (2022). Nonprofit Trends and Impacts 2021 National Findings on Donation Trends from 2015 through 2020, Diversity and Representation, and First- Year Impacts of the COVID- 19 Pandemic. Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy, Urban Institute. https://www. les/publication/104889/nonprofit-trends-and-impacts-2021_2.pdf

The Open University. (2015). What is the voluntary sector? Author. 

Random House Unabridged Dictionary. (n.d.). Voluntary sector.

Wikipedia contributors. (2022, August 19). Voluntary sector. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

Wilson, P.A. (2017). Otto Scharmer and the Field of the Future: Integrating Science, Spirituality, and Profound Social Change. In Szabla, D.B., Pasmore, W.A., Barnes, M.A., Gipson, A.N. (Eds.), The Palgrave Handbook of Organizational Change Thinkers. Palgrave Macmillan.