Ten Thoughts On Volunteering

Best Practices in Giving Back

Seemingly, we’re screwed. Disasters, homelessness, crime, disease, unemployment, debt, addiction, abuse, gun violence, on and on and oh. This is the daily news cycle in 2013, a wheel that turns on Tuesday only to wind up in the same spot Wednesday morning. As you read or watch, there is an ache in your chest. It’s sympathy. It’s empathy. It’s shock. It’s anger. You want to help and you decide to volunteer.

Thank you. You’re just the best for thinking this. You really are. But before you start, I’d like to share a few best practices and some honest, hopefully thought-provoking ideas about the idea of volunteerism. These ideas stem from the six months I spent volunteering full-time in New Orleans. I worked with a rebuilding non-profit that repainted and rebuilt homes. Following that time, I spent three years as a Volunteer Coordinator in New Orleans and Chicago. Our New Orleans volunteer base was large — with both long and short-term volunteers that we housed, often in groups of 20. In Chicago, I’ve worked mainly with the arguably more prevalent type of volunteerism, local citizens that pitch in for an hour or so at a time.

In sharing this, I am wildly aware that this might come across as hypercritical or assuming. But, in my opinion, it’s the small, invisible print written between the lines of every Volunteer Handbook and the kind of advice that would serve us all so much better to consider. It’s also a genuine compilation of my experiences and hours of conversation with others in the field.


  1. COMMIT

You have to show up. You just have to. Maybe this is tough to hear, but volunteering is a job. Just one that you don’t get paid for. And like a job, you don’t decide to show up one day and then not the next. There is a reason I am listing this first, because it is very important. Every organization I have worked for — and I hate to rain on your “but I thought non-profits loved volunteers!” parade — has been skeptical of volunteers. Sadly, this is often with good reason. As a volunteer coordinator, a surprisingly large part of my job has been trying to instill confidence about volunteers to colleagues and clients. Think about it this way: It’s not the flaky volunteer that has to explain to a child why their tutor has not showed up today. It’s not the flaky volunteer that has to explain to a homeowner why their house repairs will be delayed another week. It’s the staff, and those conversations are exceedingly difficult because the client’s trust is on the line.

So, show up. And if you can’t; call, text or email.

Also, be realistic about the time you can commit. I would rather hear “I can only volunteer one hour a month” and be hopeful about that number going up over time, than “I can volunteer 20 hours a week” and watch that number decline over time.

2. BE HONEST

If you built a doghouse once for your kids, you are not a professional carpenter.If you took a few semesters of Spanish in high school, you are not fluent. Be honest about your skill-set and availability. A good first step is to research the organization you are interested in volunteering with. Asking what kind of volunteers the organization really needs and what kind of time commitment they are looking for might be a tough talk, but can save everyone disappointment.The volunteer coordinator will appreciate that you asked. As a result of that conversation, if the organization you want to work with doesn’t have a need for your skills and interests, don’t despair. It’s not personal! There are so many other organizations that would gladly welcome you and the amount of time you can give them.

3. YOU CAN’T SAVE THE WORLD

Or as I like to call it, the “Hero Complex”. Volunteering can be a powerful and life-changing experience. Too often though, I think “volunteerism” and “service” become heroic, vague, capitalized words that instill a false sense of what it actually means to serve. It places the emphasis on Volunteer as a kind of title rather than the work the organization needs. It discounts the specific problems the organization is trying to solve and distracts from the potentially monotonous or challenging tasks they need help with.

Think about volunteering the same way you think about your job — break it down into daily tasks, prioritize, and set specific, measurable goals. By doing this you are less likely to fall victim to thinking that you can fix all the problems at once or that you have all the answers. You will also feel happier about the work you are doing and will be able to concentrate on building relationships with the organization, one shift at a time. Decrease your scope of work, and you will find incredible meaning in what otherwise would seem like minutiae.

4. MARTYRS ARE DANGEROUS

It is just as important to be aware of your limitations as it is your skill-set. Don’t put others at risk. Don’t be a hero. If you’ve used a chainsaw in yard work from time to time in, you are not a post-tornado debris-clearing expert. We don’t have a phone booth on site where you can turn into a superhero. We can’t download a program to your brain like in the Matrix. (It’s not in the budget.)

I’ve seen many examples of this, but I will share just one. I once worked with a group of carpenters who drove down from New Jersey to help us with rebuild sites. A mix of woodworkers, electricians and plumbers, these gentlemen had experience and we were delighted to have them. They were able to teach unskilled volunteers to lay flooring, tile, hang drywall, etc. Mid-week, the volunteer who was installing trim in a living room on my site didn’t come in. When I inquired, I learned he had a serious heart condition and had been feeling dizzy and confused the day before due to forgetting his medication at home. This gentleman had been showing high school volunteers on my site how to use a chop saw and a nail gun all day.

This situation was a serious liability, putting us, the volunteers, and the quality of the work at risk. Something about volunteering — and to be honest, I’ve done this myself — encourages people to work beyond their limits, to be martyrs. Working through lunch when everyone else has stopped, just means that you are hungry and cranky later, having done work that could have been completed much more quickly with a group. Working when you are sick just puts everyone else at the risk of being sick. Thinking of others through volunteerism is a beautiful gesture, but make sure that you are taking care of yourself, and not biting off more than you can chew.

5. NON-PROFITS CAN BE MESSY

It can can be difficult to witness inefficiency and disorder. To this I say, welcome to non-profits! Please keep in mind that most non-profit shops are small, with staff wearing many hats and under pressure to bring in dollars and complete projects. And those places need volunteers, they need YOU to come in and provide essential services. And we’re eager to hear your ideas on how to improve, but here I would suggest that there is a time and place for that.

Saying “this is how we do it where I work” or worse, receiving instructions and then doing it a different way, is not the way to go. I would suggest that you instead do the task exactly as you’re told. From there, if you have ideas for improvement, find a private time to speak with the volunteer coordinator. Please don’t talk to clients about how the organization could work better or what isn’t working. Put some time in (a few hours spent somewhere rarely provides a clear picture), win our trust with your reliability and quality of work and allow us to win your trust as well. Then, please! We want to hear from you, learn from you. There is always room for improvement and individuals who have advice that will help further the goals and mission of the organization will always be valued.

Of course, and this goes without saying, observing something that puts you, us, our clients or anyone else at risk is never something you should keep quiet about.

6. VISUALIZE THE IMPACT

Challenge yourself to give 100%. Tutoring a student? Painting a house? Sitting for hours at a table registering people for an event? Answering the same questions over and over again? Your friend just send you a text to see if you wanted to grab a drink? You’ve been hammering a bucket of nails back into usable condition for hours? And it’s 90 degrees outside?

To refocus, imagine that you are the recipient of the service that you are providing. Or that it’s your child that you are tutoring. Think about the house that those nails will be hammered into, and the family that will live there. Imagine it is your house that you are painting. DO THIS. It’s an easy mental exercise and it makes an immediate difference. It will help you to reevaluate what is acceptable and not acceptable. Own your work by thinking about how it fits into the mission of the organization and how it will impact others. Don’t let mistakes slide, don’t accept anything but exactly what needed to be done. Encourage others to do the same. You’ll be loved for it.

7. HAVE NO EXPECTATIONS

What are you expecting to get out of your volunteer experience? I’ve heard everything from “I want to change lives” to “I need to log service hours” to “I want to find myself”. Having expectations is human, but I wish that volunteers came in with fewer. When you come in with a blank slate, you will enjoy your volunteer experience so much more. I’m not referring to safety and clear communication — you have a right to those. What I am thinking about are more personal gratification-type hopes. A more well-rounded and competitive CV, a letter of recommendation, specific expectations about the work you will be doing, semi-decent coffee, etc.

A recurring theme in this list is the importance of focusing on one thing at a time. The same thinking works here. It puts undue pressure on both you and the organization you serve when you come in with expectations like those listed above. I’m not suggesting you don’t communicate these hopes to the volunteer coordinator. But don’t EXPECT it. Because you leave yourself open for disappointment when you do that. And worse, you put your agenda before the organization you are serving.

8. ASK QUESTIONS

Don’t know the answer to something? Don’t know how to do something? Ask.

(Don’t know how to do something you’ve told someone you DO know how to do? Ask. )

9. SOMETIMES IT’S OK TO WRITE A CHECK

This is a tough one to write about since I feel strongly that time spent serving others is important and meaningful. It will make you a better person. It shapes your view of the world in important, human ways. It opens your eyes to the way you think the world works versus the way it actually does.

With that said… well, money! Money keeps non-profits in business. It’s also hands down the number one stress factor. Therefore, it might be worth thinking about whether a more meaningful impact can be made through or alongside a direct donation. I want to highlight two groups where this could be the case: Long-distance service trips and corporations.

I. In New Orleans we regularly had groups of unskilled volunteers fly tremendous distances, citing bake sales and the incredible support of the community and congregations to fund their trip. The money their community raised benefited them by enabling them to physically be in New Orleans while the labor they provided became the currency that our organization received. Our clients were grateful for their service, and we were grateful for the time they spent working with us (and, to be honest, spending money in our city). But it cost, on average $650- $750 to paint a house, and 20 volunteers x ~$300/airfare = $6,000. And that’s just airfare. Meals, trip t-shirts, new clothing and shoes were often additional expenses. We were aware that local groups, or those traveling shorter distances, could provide the same free labor to do the same job, minus housing and meal costs, potentially with some continuity. Or that with additional dollars, we might be able to hire skilled painters, at a potential discount, to do this work professionally for our clients or provide training sessions on a regular basis.

I know. Am I suggesting that we tell a group of high school or college students eager to serve and travel just to… stay home and send us cash? To this I would say two things.

First, there is need everywhere. Implying that problems exist at the end of a very long trip across the country instead of their own backyard negatively affects how youth think about philanthropy and the need for social services. It becomes “others” instead of “my neighbor”. It turns the idea of volunteerism into that of “savior”. And I am someone that moved from Chicago to New Orleans to volunteer, I’ve had these thoughts, I’ve talked with others that have had these thoughts. Guilty. I wish someone had talked with me about this before I left. Do you need to take a trip across the country, spending hundreds of dollars, to teach others about service?

Second, sacrificing the idea of service to the actual service is a step backwards. In New Orleans we were thinking about how we could paint the most houses for the most clients in the long term. A group of unskilled workers that flew to New Orleans came at a significant cost to us. Training, meals, housing, cleaning, staff time. My cell phone rang constantly — on weekends, late at night — with tour guide-type questions or borderline complaints. These groups wanted to serve, to help, to demonstrate justice in a world that seems a bit lacking. That’s wonderful. But I often felt that these groups thought about what they needed from New Orleans first, and what New Orleans needed from them second. I wished that the groups came in with more of an understanding that the problems we faced were complex and not to be understood in a single week, and that we needed patience and long-term support. Some did, but I wished that for more.

If growing a long-term relationship with the organization you are traveling to serve isn’t an idea you can consider, I think assessing the trip from a purely cost and organizational needs perspective could be a worthwhile exercise.

II. Corporations often have corporate responsibility programs that encourage employees to volunteer in groups. These often take shape as a Day of Service (or another single day event). Such community-facing initiatives are wonderful, but in my experience, sometimes problematic in their execution. Namely, it can be hard to find a way that a large group of corporate employees can meaningfully serve an organization in a single day. One, many organizations often don’t think about volunteers opportunities in terms of large groups. Two, corporate groups often come into the opportunity with specific outcomes they expect.

Additionally, a corporate group of 20 coming for one day is on one hand, just that. But on the other hand, no matter how it is planned ahead of time, the following scenario can and frequently happens:

After many months of planning, 20 employees arrive, on average, 15-30 minutes late to the organization on a bus. They spend at least 30 minutes learning about the organization and getting a tour. Then they learn what they will be doing for the day. Then, they will have an hour or two, tops, to get into the rhythm of the work before lunch. Lunch is an hour. And then several hours of work take place after lunch, if you’re lucky (and the weather cooperates!) before the group needs to clean up to get back to the office. That’s 4 hours tops of service, generally with an unskilled group, and likely months of planning. I’m not sure that’s the best use of the group or organization’s talents and money, nor the best introduction to the work the organization is doing.

I’ve also worked with corporate groups with the expectation that we provide meals/water bottles for their volunteers. Or, that we offer photo opportunities or media coverage. That costs us money. And the latter can put the organization in a difficult position in terms of respecting client privacy.

To remedy these issues, I’d like to suggest that you think about your company’s service in terms of goals rather than numbers or time. Work and plan with the volunteer coordinator instead of coming in with an existing agenda. Let’s be mutually understanding about our limitations and aware of them from the start. Is the best project one that takes place only on a single day? Or,could it be a long-term volunteer program? Importantly, is there a grant the organization can apply for in tandem with this service opportunity? Will the organization be receiving a donation? Is there matching potential? What is the organization getting out of the experience and what is the company getting out of the experience? Is there a workshop or other initiative your employees can create off-site and then present? Is it a good fit? Again, it’s OK if it’s not. And if it is, try to be creative, clear and flexible around the goals you set.

10. PLEASE DON’T FORGET ABOUT US

Thank you for volunteering. After your experience, spread the word! Write about it on Facebook, Twitter, Medium. Talk about it with friends, family, colleagues,etc. Reflection is an important part of the volunteer experience. Ask yourself what you learned and what you would change. Ask the organization if they have a volunteer survey where you can share your thoughts about your experience. Think about others that you could connect with the organization. Do you work for a company that offers employee matching? Do you have an extra $20 at the end of the month? (Could we have it, please?) Organizations are grateful for your support, and excited about the possibility of building a long-term relationship with you.

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