Fear of Volunteering

volunteerVolunteering is scary, for several reasons:

  • You may be asked to do some things you’re not particularly good at, and/or don’t like doing. We already have enough of that in our lives.
  • Many volunteer organizations are chronically understaffed, and hence a bit disorganized and chaotic. And the work can be both physically and emotionally demanding.
  • Some of the people you may encounter doing such work can be a bit frightening (including some of the people who work for the organization, and some of the other volunteers!)
  • It’s a commitment, and once you’re in, it can turn out to be a drain on your time and energies, and, if it doesn’t work out — if you really hate the experience — it takes some courage to then say you won’t be back (without sounding like a quitter).

For that reason, a lot of people who have the time, and who would like to do something to help, don’t volunteer.

In an article a couple of years ago I mentioned an organization called Independent Sector that offers these 10 tips to prospective volunteers:

  1. Research the issues and causes of issues that are important to you.
  2. Consider what skills you have to offer.
  3. Choose a volunteer program that will teach you something new.
  4. Choose a program that will help you achieve other personal goals.
  5. Don’t over-commit to too many volunteer organizations.
  6. Be prepared to answer questions and qualify before you start.
  7. Volunteer as a family, so your volunteer work doesn’t keep you apart.
  8. If you can’t get out, look at ‘virtual volunteering’ programs.
  9. Think outside the box for unique volunteering experiences (e.g. community theatres, prisons, or parks – the site has a whole list of others).
  10. Bring your heart and your sense of humour to whatever cause you help.

Here are some hints to get past the five fears (humiliation, stress, obnoxious people, tedium and commitment) of volunteering:

  • Check out the alternatives first: Tell each organization you investigate that you’re doing research on volunteering (that’s no lie), perhaps for an article (if you’re a blogger, that’s no lie either). Tell them you’d like to ‘shadow’ a volunteer for a few hours for your ‘story’. If they say yes, make sure you stay out of the way as the volunteer does her work. Then you’ll know if you’re likely to find volunteering yourself intimidating or too much to handle. Try this with several organizations before deciding whether, and where, to volunteer. And if you are a blogger, tell us your story.
  • Don’t think of it as another job: Volunteering is an opportunity to learn, to stretch yourself, to see the world from a different perspective, to meet new people, and to give something you have to give that doesn’t get expression elsewhere. If it doesn’t give you this opportunity, don’t do it. Don’t put up with bossy or offensive people — there are some tin pot dictators in volunteer organizations, but they won’t be tolerated if volunteers refuse to work with them. Don’t let yourself be used just because it’s in a good cause. And don’t let anyone manipulate you into doing what you don’t want to do by making you feel guilty. You’re not a quitter if you don’t choose to give your free time to an activity that doesn’t fulfill you.
  • Stay out of the back office: Some volunteer organizations are notoriously bureaucratic, and while it may be more comfortable in the back office than on the front lines, that’s not what volunteering is about. It’s about touching people. Leave the paperwork to the people who actually love doing it (there are a few such people).
  • Stay off the phone: Unless it’s an emergency help line and you’re skilled at handling such calls, or unless you’re physically unable to do front-line work, try to avoid phone work for the same reason you avoid back-office work — booo-ring.
  • Avoid fundraising: Unless you have a talent for it and like doing it, of course. There’s nothing quite like having a thousand people bark at you and slam the phone (or door) on you to make volunteering a miserable experience. Same goes for gladhanding and door-knocking for politicians — it’s tedious, grueling, thankless work, meant only for those that actually enjoy extreme challenges. And if you don’t like it and aren’t talented at it, you’re probably wasting everyone’s time anyway.
  • Find the roles that engage your passion without burning you out: A natural volunteer position for me would be working at an animal shelter — animal welfare is something I care deeply about. But I wouldn’t last a week. I’d soon end up either an emotional wreck or arrested for murder. Talking with other volunteers will help you find out what those roles that strike the passion-without-burnout balance are for you.
  • Team with someone who knows the ropes: At first, you’ll learn faster and resolve the stress faster if you can work with someone who’s mastered the role. Later, if there’s a bit of a teacher in you, volunteer to mentor other newbies.
  • Be completely honest: Office politics doesn’t apply in volunteer work. If you don’t think you’re up for the task, or are having trouble handling it, or just hate it, talk it out, and trust your instincts. You don’t need to make excuses, or pretend you can do what you can’t, or be nice to people who are obnoxious, or exhaust yourself, or feel bad about saying ‘no’ in a volunteer position. Say what you feel, do what you want.
  • Challenge yourself, a little: You are unlikely to get a paying job doing something you have neither skills nor experience doing. But you can volunteer to do something outside your skills and experience, as long as everyone’s aware of that fact. You just might find you develop the skills and experience by volunteering that will then qualify you for a paying gig you otherwise would never have had a chance at.
  • Don’t give up if the first volunteer attempt fails: Volunteer work is as varied as paying work. If you have one bad experience, don’t conclude that volunteering isn’t for you.

If you’re willing to volunteer, here are websites that are good starting points for Americans (Volunteer Match ) and Canadians (Canadian Volunteerism Initiative ) to learn where volunteers are needed.

Thank you!

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