I Don’t Rush to Volunteer Anymore. Here’s Why

Recently, I contacted a public interest nonprofit to find out about volunteer opportunities. Without learning anything about me, the coordinator pleasantly asked “Can you help market an event to show a movie in your town about tax loopholes?”

Um, no. Public relations are not part of my skill set, and spreading the word about this movie would’ve involved a significant amount of what little free time I had. Politely, I declined and she never contacted me again. This got me thinking about why it is that I’ve increasingly avoided volunteering for anything.vol_comp

During National Volunteer Week (April 12-18, 2015) we will likely hear many appeals for various opportunities for service. Organizations such as schools, churches, civic groups, and nonprofits are always in need of volunteers. In fact, these organizations chronically lament the fact that they struggle to find adequate manpower and funding to support their missions. But just as important as donating your time to a cause is being aware of what you’re getting yourself into.

Generally, organizations that can’t afford to pay all their workers recruit volunteers by offering intangible incentives. But these incentives, I have observed, don’t provide all the value that they promise.

To varying degrees, organizations base their appeals for volunteers on one or more of the following:

  1. You will benefit from “giving back”: Giving back implies that you have received. However, many who are struggling to make ends meet, stuck in an unsatisfying job with no chance for advancement, or lost on the road of life are still waiting to receive. This makes the idea of “giving back” pointless. People have a need to feel needed and useful, and until that need is met, the “giving back” part doesn’t play.
  2. You will share your unique skills: Everybody wants to feel like they have something special to offer. In fact, that is exactly what we are asked to define when we apply for a job: the unique value you, as an individual, can provide the organization. However, volunteer organizations are looking for just the opposite. Most openings for volunteers are jobs that require no experience and very little skill, such as shuffling papers, raking leaves, or distributing food. Anyone with an IQ higher than a zombie can do the work. To the organization, you are not a person but a resource to be used as they see fit.
  3. You will network with a group of like-minded people: People who volunteer have a large amount of time on their hands. From what I have observed, this means they are either retired, supported by a spouse, or unemployed. They may share your interest in whatever it is you are volunteering for, but they are not a representative cross-section of society. It is highly unlikely that your association will move beyond that day or two of working together because these folks are just as struggling and disconnected as you. Despite the warm fuzzies, you won’t receive anything that could boost your network.

Unfortunately, all of these are based on assumptions that don’t hold true for everyone, and shaming people into volunteering or enticing them with false promises is bound to backfire. Organizations that are wondering how they can recruit and retain more volunteers should look at what they’re offering and see if it matches up to their volunteers’ actual experience.

In case anyone is wondering, I have volunteered many, many times. I spent two years on a citizen committee for my town, three years as a Cub Scout assistant den leader, six years on a committee at my church, and six years working at my county fair. Before that, at various times and places, I have shoveled manure, sorted books, manned booths, served food, and collected canned goods, all as an unpaid volunteer. I did all these things because they needed doing and I have no regrets.

But none of these—with the possible exception of the church committee—have provided any of the alleged benefits listed above.

Just to be clear, by “volunteer” I’m not meaning volunteer firefighters, or physicians who volunteer during disasters or epidemics, or lawyers who work pro bono. These are trained professionals donating their skills. They are certainly doing good work and personally benefitting from doing so. Rather, I’m referring to the incessant call from countless directions to donate your valuable time.

I’m sure that many people have had very fulfilling volunteer experiences, and that’s fine. Perhaps my need for these intangible benefits is higher, so that when an experience does not deliver on its promises, I notice.

If somebody were to offer me the opportunity to be part of something that I deeply cared about and to contribute my skills to a good cause, then I might renew my interest in volunteering. Until then, don’t bother calling because I’m not signing up.

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2 comments

  1. Leave the Cannoli, Take the Knife

    Hmmm… I see your dilemma. Clearly you’ve done lots of volunteering before. I do a lot of volunteer work too, but I have learned over time not to expect anything from it. Occasionally I make new friends (that have nothing to do with professional networking), but that’s about it. Maybe you should focus (if you want to) on finding an organization that not only is in alignment with your personal philosophies, but also in need of writers. Does no one need a newsletter (paper or online)? Does no one need editing of pamphlets, brochures, etc.? If there’s no need, then yeah, you’re right to skip it. My husband’s philosophy about volunteering is: given the choice of donating a lot of time or a little money to a cause I believe in, he always chooses the latter.

    • Matthew Taylor

      I have given an unknown number of dollars to charities over the years and it feels to me like it doesn’t change anything. They just keep coming back asking for even more. I don’t find it as satisfying as I once did.

      As for skills, in my experience the far and away number one request for volunteer time is for a treasurer or bookkeeper. Writers are never requested, in part because (unlike bookkeeping) everyone thinks they can do it (regardless of whether they actually can). And writing has become so undervalued in the market that not even for-profit organizations (Huffington Post, for example) pay for it. Trust me, I’ve looked.

      Anyway, thanks, as always, for your comment.

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