Dan Bassill Interview by Paul DiPerna | Blau Exchange
Dan Bassill Interview
moderated by Paul DiPerna
Dan.. You have been organizing volunteers and numerous activities
for more than 30 years now. Your track record is hugely impressive,
home especially considering that so much of this work has been done
introduction outside regular working hours.
l What sparked your passion for volunteerism?
l Were there highly influential people or events?
subscribe to email updates Thanks for taking time to ask me these
I was not this committed when I first
RSS for interviews 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
Paul's bio and projects
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 Bassill's Bio
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.
How has your post-secondary education affected the way you think
about organizing and promoting volunteering?
My post secondary education has had four distinct phases:
l 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;
l 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;
l 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;
l 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
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.
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?
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.
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
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
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
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?
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.
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?
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
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
The big guys could change
"this can happen that, using the technology a few
faster if they can of them have invented. It's not
find access happening yet... at least as far
to philanthropic as I can see. The little guys
capital for might create these changes,
innovation" despite the obstacles of
However, this can happen faster if they can find access to
philanthropic capital for innovation.
Do you see any particular philanthropic organizations providing
useful/innovative models for making judgments and creating effective
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.
Can you give us a quick snapshot of T/MC?
How many kids, volunteers, and what cities are involved?
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-
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
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.
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
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
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
How do your interests in knowledge management and social
network analysis tie into your T/MC activities (present or future)?
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.
What is OHATS? And how has it benefited T/MC?
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
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
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.
I understand mapping analysis is increasingly important for you and
your colleagues. What kinds of maps do you use, and why do you use
There are two types of mapping:
l geographic mapping;
l 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
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
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.
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?
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
It will be a challenge for people to figure out which SN sites are the
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
Thanks for the interview Paul. I enjoyed this and hope we
can keep the conversation going.
Dan Bassill | April 3, 2007 at 10:56 PM
Likewise Dan.. I learned a lot from our interview. This
was a very rich experience. Your organizations are doing
tremendous work for the city of Chicago.
Paul DiPerna | April 4, 2007 at 7:43 AM
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