Fostering Hospitable Spaces in Your Volunteer Opportunities

By María Elisa Terrón, PhD

A volunteer Mentor-Judge listens to a student presenting their research at SACNAS’ National Diversity in STEM Conference. SACNAS volunteers provide approximately 7,000 hours of service to SACNAS each year.

During my PhD program, I turned to volunteering to find a sense of community that was lacking in the laboratory and in the institution in general. Many people seek out volunteer opportunities to learn new skills, develop a network, lend their time and talents, or anything else. These experiences can be deeply rewarding, but they can also fall short of their promise.

In one instance, a museum I’d volunteered with regularly had planned a large family activity and I was asked to make announcements in English and then translate them to Spanish on a microphone…in real time. I was talking endlessly, my throat was sore, and the organizers didn’t plan for any breaks. It was difficult to get to the water fountain and the bathroom. I was also kept busy with other tasks. Near the end, I was exhausted, but I was asked to guide meditations in English because the organizer “wanted her son to learn Spanish and my accent was going to help him learn.” When the day wrapped up, she complained I drank too many juice samples that the server kept on offering me because I had no access to water! I left to never return.

There were so many reasons this experience was problematic, but it came down to the fact that I wasn’t being respected or treated with care. The organizer’s expectations were not aligned with my own.

I learned that I needed to make sure that I resonate both with an organization’s mission and how their team puts that mission into practice.

In graduate school, I volunteered with a recycling program. It was an extremely stressful time in my life, as my father got sick and passed away and I’d lost my stipend. After I’d missed a shift, the head of the program sent me a three-paragraph email to scold me. I’m a responsible person, but without food, shelter, and while experiencing a major loss, my volunteer commitments had fallen in my hierarchy of priorities. All that was needed was a check-in to see if I needed support or flexibility in a tough time.

On the other hand, when I volunteered to do public health fieldwork, the organization trained me on my specific tasks, stuck to timeframes, roles, and expectations.

In this experience I found the sense of community I was looking for — I didn’t do it just to expand my professional network. What we were doing mattered.

The experience opened my world to public health, something I had never considered. I believed in their mission and what they were doing when I got there matched what they were saying.

My volunteer commitment with SACNAS also modeled a positive volunteering experience. I provided feedback to students to help them grow as scientists and I volunteered because I believe in their mission and had positive memories as an undergraduate student receiving travel grants and feedback. They gave me detailed rubrics and clearly explained expectations via email with deadlines communicated far in advance.

After a number of volunteer experiences (the good, bad, and the ugly), I offer this list of 6 things to foster hospitable spaces:

  1. Respect your volunteers. Pay for what you can pay for and if there’s a need that serves a greater purpose, then reach out to volunteers so that you don’t exploit free labor. This includes respecting time, energy, skills, availability, and basic needs like transportation, bathroom breaks, and water!
  2. Acknowledge and be sensitive to the fact that volunteers might have different backgrounds to yours. This might also include all the aspects within the diversity wheel and might even include health concerns. Make your space hospitable and accessible to volunteers.
  3. Let the volunteers have agency over their why and don’t impose your own. Be aware that people volunteer for different reasons. For example, some people do it to exercise leadership, while others volunteer for social needs. Or someone like me, who invests time and energy into finding ways to be a part of something bigger than ourselves and seeks the sense of belonging this can sometimes bring.
  4. Life happens, be courteous, compassionate, and sensitive to where the volunteer might be in their hierarchy of needs and priorities at that specific moment in life.
  5. Communicate. Be clear with expectations while letting your spoken mission match your actions.
  6. Remember that volunteers don’t have to give you their time. Thank them for their time and energy.

Overall, I had positive experiences when my time and identities were respected, and negative experiences when they were not.

If you’re looking to volunteer, it’s up to you to find what aligns with your values and vision and leave behind what doesn’t. Look for signs of how an organization treats volunteers by how many return time and time again, the organization’s clarity when communicating, and the diversity of backgrounds and identities present.

I hope that my experiences serve as teaching moments when finding a volunteer opportunity that matches your needs and when managing volunteers!

About the Author

María Elisa Terrón obtained her PhD in Biomedical Sciences and throughout her education she’s been curious about the decisions made in academic environments. She has been volunteering since before she knew that volunteering was the term for it and has managed volunteers where she has had several successes and made some mistakes she continues to learn from. She has started multiple initiatives that she’s passionate about such as sharing science content with a social context and maybe someday she’ll share the information openly, for now she seeks connections with others who share similar values because together we can make a positive change. Find María on Twitter @MariaTerronPhD.

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Dedicated to advancing Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in science. Science, culture, and community in the movement for true diversity in STEM.