Thrown a Bone and Shown the Door

[Since today has become a national day of service, I thought I would share a post that I wrote two years ago about my ambivalence about volunteering. I would love to hear your thoughts on the topic.]

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Janey was nice. Janey was patient. But in the end, she–or rather, her nonprofit organization–just didn’t want me.

I think I handled it pretty well.

Moreover, it taught me something about the nature of institutional organizations. It was, as they say, a learning experience.walking-through-the-door-2

Here’s what happened: Last year, I set out to find an opportunity to get involved with something I deeply care about. Nature and the environment has always been of interest to me, as well as work in the public interest, which led me to the Maryland Public Interest Research Group, or Maryland PIRG.

I inquired about opportunities to volunteer, hoping to fulfill a need within the organization. While I didn’t explicitly say it, writing needed to be a key component of this arrangement. The dispassionate writing I do for a living can dull the creative edge, and I think my best writing is done when the topic is something that interests me. I could never be a great salesman, who could sell a refrigerator to an Eskimo, but I can really push an idea if it fascinates me. This is not unusual for an introvert, and I embrace the characterization.

In addition, I wanted to feel that I was contributing and, in the process, honing my writing skills. If I was going to volunteer my time, it had to be something that worked for me too, with my skill set and my availability. With a good match, it could have been a working relationship that benefitted both of us.

When Janey, a coordinator from Maryland PIRG, finally contacted me, however, I felt like she wasn’t sure quite what to do with me. This surprised me, since nonprofits often bemoan the fact that they struggle to find adequate manpower and funding to support their missions. I would think that anyone with a talent to share and a passion for the cause could find a home there. Instead, I felt that I was creating an annoyance.

Specifically, I felt that Janey (not her real name) had to dig up a project for me to work on.  It wasn’t exactly busy-work, but neither did it seem central to Maryland PIRG’s core mission.  I’d hoped to get was some project that required in-depth analysis and well-crafted writing. What I got was a request to write a letter to the editor.

I suppose it’s unreasonable for me to expect someone I’ve never met to entrust me with important work, so I did the letter. But I’ve done many letters to the editor in the past, on my own initiative, and for the most part, they’ve provided little sense of accomplishment.

Furthermore, her response time was slower than what I expected, had I actually been offering to provide a valuable service to the group. In all the social and business transactions that I’ve been a part of throughout my life, it has nearly always been the case that the more interested someone is, the quicker and more enthusiastic the reaction.

Bottom line: I was being thrown a bone and shown the door.

Despite what we are taught to believe in college, the world of work does not treat us as individuals with a unique combination of talents and experience. Rather, we are just the sum total of our transferable skills. We are resources (human resources, right?), something reduced to its monetary value, modular and interchangeable.

Sadly, nonprofits are no different. Nonprofits will take a certain number of volunteers, but what they really want is money.  Money is fungible. Rather than having to match people’s talents to specific tasks that need doing, it is easier for an organization to take money. The effect is that the organization, despite having been started with good intentions, becomes just another institution.

I finished the letter to the editor and was able to get it published in a regional newspaper. Janey liked it (“this letter is really great,” she said). But when I was ready for another task, she asked for help marketing an event to show a movie about tax loopholes. This was not my skill set, and would’ve involved time I didn’t have to spend. I declined.  And she never wrote back.

My relationship with Janey was mildly thrilling but ultimately brief. It just wasn’t meant to be.

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