Volunteering is a big part of my life. It is something I do regularly in a variety of different guises. The very short version of this post (TL/DR) can be summed up in two main points:
- If you are interested in volunteering – Give it a try.
- If you are working with volunteers – Don’t be a dick.
For those of you with more time on your hands, here are some of my thoughts about volunteering, based on my own experiences and those of people I know.
As I said earlier, volunteering is a fairly big part of my life. I didn’t intentionally set out to become a serial volunteer, it just happened over time. Even if I have no intention of getting involved, if the reasons are strong enough and you don’t have enough people to do the jobs that need doing, then I’ll help you. I have a pretty big skill set, so you can guarantee that I’ll be a useful member of the team. On the rare occasions that you don’t need any of my digital, event management, organisational or admin skills, I can lug boxes, I can drive places and I’m happy to be the loud one that stands up in front of a crowd and makes announcements or shouts out raffle ticket numbers.
I’m an all in kind of person. If I do something, I will always do it to the best of my ability and I’m helpful by nature so if I can help, then I will and I’ll do my best to make a good job of it. From running a primary school parent teacher association (PTA) to lugging gazebos for the market ran by the local traders association, I’m in. Being a volunteer is rarely glamorous and isn’t always easy but it’s always worth it and if I didn’t do the things I do – who else would?
Volunteering is usually quite enjoyable, you often meet new people and get the chance to pick up some new skills. As a serial volunteer I have two pieces of advice for those thinking of volunteering:
- Just give it a try
- Don’t overcommit
If you’re not sure that you have enough time to volunteer for something, then I’ll let you into a secret, very few people have time to be a volunteer, we just make the time to do what we can. If somebody needs something doing on a Tuesday morning but you’re at work then you can’t help them, but maybe you can do something else or help another time. Some things can’t be moved e.g. family commitments, employment or whatever, but the idea that the only people who can volunteer for things are those with lots of free time is 99.9% false.
Another common falsehood is the idea that only certain people get to do things or that you have to be part of a special clique. If something needs doing, it will still need doing even if Barbara’s best friend Valerie (or whoever) isn’t the one doing it. This idea is fairly common in primary school PTAs where the perception of smug mums swanning in and out of the staff room, leads people to think that you have to be part of a special club to be on first name terms with the Head Master. Having been the Chair of our local PTA I can categorically state that I would have given anything for a few more bodies to step up and help man stalls at the Christmas Fair.
My personal experience of volunteering is that it’s a place to make more friends, not the opposite. I didn’t know many people when I took over the PTA, joined the WordPress community or joined the charity I help run, but I do now and I count some of those people amongst my closest friends. Try to look past any smug mums you encounter in PTAs or perceived experts at tech meet ups. Things are not always what they seem and if from time to time you come across people who don’t act the way one would expect, that’s on them, not you, so don’t let that put you off. There are lots of reasons why people don’t volunteer, including drama created by other volunteers. Running around the playground loudly announcing how busy you are isn’t the best way to get more people to join the PTA!
Over commitment can be a big problem for volunteers. If you’re not sure that you’ll be able to do something then please make that clear at the time. Nobody deliberately sets out to let people down, but if you agree to do too much then it’s a big possibility that things will end badly. Every single project I have ever been involved with, includes a percentage of people who are there at the beginning volunteering for things, that somebody else ends up stepping in at the last minute and doing. It’s easy to get over enthusiastic at introductory meetings whilst everybody is brainstorming, but in the long run its stressful and unhelpful for everybody. Likewise if you sign up for something and your circumstances change, which means that you need to dial back, then let somebody know. Nobody will have a problem with that, but somebody needs to make alternative arrangements and they can’t do that if they don’t know that whatever it is, isn’t being done. Make sure that you give regular feedback on any areas you’re working on and always speak up if there are any problems.
On the other side of the coin, if you are working with volunteers then my advice to you is as follows:
- Don’t be a dick (most people don’t need to be told this)
- Be respectful of people’s time
- Don’t make it about you
- Don’t let other volunteers push you around
I’m lucky enough that I have only limited experience of being on the receiving end of other volunteers behaving badly and the majority of the ones that did, didn’t mean to, but I know of some genuine horror stories. People who yell at other volunteers (hard to believe but absolutely true) or belittle them because they think they know better, are a special breed of unpleasant for everyone.
If you’re part of a team that volunteers their time for free, then respect your team mates. You’re no more special than anybody else, so don’t use your good deeds to go off on a power trip and make other people question whether they want to be part of it. Do not make it about you.
Respecting other people’s time is an important part of volunteering, as the work is generally on top of whatever else they do. If you are responsible for a project that involves managing volunteers please try to avoid making things take more time and effort than necessary.
Another helpful piece of advice for those managing projects with volunteers is: Don’t let other volunteers push you around. Occasionally you’re so busy trying to be fair to everybody involved in the project, that you let other people harangue you into agreeing to stupid things. Sometimes you have to stand your ground.
My biggest volunteering commitment is to a small charity called SPACE. We’re an ADHD Support Group. I originally joined the group in the 90s when my daughter was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. The diagnosis helped everything about her make sense and explained why nothing I tried previously ever worked. I went along to my first meeting in 2004 and I didn’t leave. Over time I needed to ‘take’ less from the group which allowed me to ‘give’ more. I stopped needing support from the group (most of the time) but was able to use my experiences to support other parents.
As a parent of an adult with ADHD I’m proof of the light at the end of the tunnel and my daughter is proof that unruly kids can turn into smart, capable, well adjusted adults. The SPACE group was started by a group of parents who needed a service that didn’t exist, so they created it. I’m now one of four parents that runs the charity. Those services are still needed, so people like me and my friends are still here providing them. I take the lead on digital things – I’m a web developer and digital marketer so why would I not use those skills to help other people going through the same struggles I’ve already lived though? I’m also the Treasurer, not because I’m brilliant with money, but because I know how to fill in Mickey Mouse forms, know my way around a spreadsheet and can be quite officious about making people hand over receipts when I have to!
A day in the life of a volunteer at a small charity is a pretty mixed bag and involves a combination of learning constantly, working with no time and usually working with no money. Everything is currently done at either zero or very close to zero cost, which brings challenges and requires a lot of creativity. Fortunately it matters enough to make every minute worth it.