This blog post has been written a hundred times by volunteer coordinators wanting to create “model volunteers,” but often these people put the needs of the institution over the needs of the person. We’re building Helpspring to help volunteers find meaningful volunteer work, so we wanted to write the guide from your point of view. I have served as a volunteer, an informal community organizer, and as one of those volunteer coordinators I just besmirched. This analysis relies not just on my own experiences as a volunteer, but also draws on a diverse group of volunteers I trust.
Be Picky when it comes to values
A lot of volunteer work is thankless and mundane, but nothing is worse than coupling less-than-thrilling effort with a project that doesn’t align with your values. Ideally, the work would be interesting and the values would align with yours. Of the two, values are what will ultimately make the work sustainably meaningful. Want to know what values the group holds? Look at the last few activities they’ve been up to, and research where they spend their money and resources.
Find Your People
As our lives are becoming more isolated, our volunteer work is too, especially with the advent of remote volunteer work. We are going to have to make a concerted effort to get to know the people we’re working with in order to build relationships. If your volunteer work doesn’t naturally include social elements, try to work them in yourself. Show up early. Ask if people want to go hang out afterwards. If you are really isolated, ask for social time from the group. It’s important.
This is going to a key feature of Helpspring, we’re you’ll be able to develop a friend network and be able to see where they are getting involved, then join them.
Ensure Your Safety, both physical and emotional
We all have different levels of tolerance for unsafe work, and sometimes meeting the need is inherently dangerous. Still, we all need to feel safe to be effective volunteers. Organizations need to be clear about how they are protecting you and what the risks are. Emotional safety is also important. There is a lot of talk about the “wounded healer.” That’s sometimes a beautiful sentiment, but if you’ve been victimized and are carrying trauma, don’t feel obligated to expose yourself to more.
Be firm about the resources you have to give
As a former volunteer coordinator, I would often ask people to give more, without knowing how much they had to give in the first place. This is what will happen to you if you aren’t clear about your time, your money, or your abilities. It goes the other way too…when your resources are being under-utilized you might also feel undervalued.
Do the work…but know your limitations
If you are not meeting your commitments, don’t beat yourself up about it. Instead, try to discern what is keeping you from doing so, and then be clear about that with the group. Work together to improve expectations. This may mean you’ll need to take on different work, do less work, or take a break.
Know your value and maximize it
Experts agree that a volunteer hour is worth somewhere around $30. We’re not in it for the money, but it’s good know that you are respected for the value you bring. It’s also fulfilling to know that your value has been maximized and that your professional skills are being leveraged for all they’re worth within your constraints. For example, having a graphic designer do mundane work when the organization could be doing better marketing is a not necessarily the best fit. In an ideal situation, personal assets would be matched neatly to needs (a core concept of Asset Based Community Development).
Make sure your needs are being met
While it’s rewarding to work on projects where you value the mission of the group, it’s OK to also have some personal reasons for wanting to get involved. Often this relates to your wish to build meaningful relationships. Sometimes, you are trying to get professional experience. Don’t be afraid to ask to change your situation to make sure these needs are being met.
Be transparent, and expect transparency
Be transparent, especially about conflicts of interest. There have been a lot of situations where I’ve pushed organizations to move in directions that match the professional services I offer. This is acceptable behavior, but only if you are clear about your dual role. It’s at this point where volunteering would need to become a paid service…AND you must recuse yourself from any voting or campaigning. Being transparent will earn you a lot of trust and will keep you from second guessing yourself.
Similarly, you should expect transparency from the group. If there is a controversy, the group should be clear about what’s going on and how it affects you. You should have an open channel for asking questions and getting answers. Protecting privacy is important in a lot of circumstances, but not when doing so undermines fundamental trust in an organization and/or fails to protect the victimized.
Ask for accountability for the group and for yourself
There is an old adage that any action worth doing is worth assessing. The same goes for volunteer work. If you aren’t getting any feedback, feel free to ask for it. If the group isn’t asking for feedback, feel free to offer it. Perhaps the most important piece of feedback you could get is an assessment of whether your work is having an impact on the need you are trying to meet or the people you are trying to serve. It’s always worth your time to try to answer that question, and it’s always worth centering the marginalized voices you are serving as you discover the answer.
Know your exit strategy
Sometimes, exit strategies are very clear in formal volunteer situations that are term limited. But in all other cases, you’ll have more certainty when you have an idea of when your involvement will end. This keeps you from dragging on in a situation that isn’t as fulfilling, even if you are currently satisfied. As a volunteer, you want your time to be as meaningful as possible. Every hour spent in a ho-hum situation is one you could be spending doing amazing work somewhere else.