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A survival guide to volunteering
With globalization, materialism has become part of the culture of today’s generation. The gap between rich and poor exists as it has done for many centuries and altruism continues, with those who wish to aid and support causes that can help others. Financial donations keep charities and non-profit organizations afloat, but it is the volunteers with their free labor that allow the organizations to function on a daily basis.
There are lots of reasons to volunteer; to help a local cause or charity that has helped you, to gain experience in a field or to learn new skills. Volunteers come from all ages and backgrounds; the majority are retired seniors who are able to offer more time, or students in between schools or people on a sabbatical. A good organization has a mix of volunteers, who can provide experience across the generations, like many successful companies.
Unfortunately, volunteering has itself become a business; it doesn’t matter how passionate you are about a cause, organizations are choosing volunteers on criteria that is inconsistent with their own mission statement. Previously paid positions are now replaced with volunteers, but often the volunteers are not qualified and have signed up to help, not to work with targets and KPIs.
How long should I volunteer?
Volunteers who can work for a short period of time are overlooked against those who can commit to a longer period. Surely that makes no sense, to turn down a qualified computer technician who can work for two months while he is between schools, in favor of a retired lady who can work six months who doesn’t know what a spreadsheet is, in an office that needs organization and updating? Well, it happens because the people in charge want people long term for free, rather than looking at the quality of the skills on offer. Turning down free help is nonsensical, but it happens. Understanding how volunteers are recruited and why may take away the altruism originally intended, but it will remove the disillusionment when your goodwill is rejected.
Why do you like to volunteer?
Decide how much time you can realistically offer
Organizations sometimes view volunteers as flexible staff to do whatever and whenever. Whether you do a few hours at the food bank or in the goodwill store or choose to be a residential volunteer, help out, but don’t put your life on hold, risk your job, be late to pick up your children or cancel appointments. It’s harsh, but we are all replaceable and they will find someone else. If you are a residential volunteer, many places will offer a trial week or a few days, so both parties can see if it is suitable. Some may insist on a minimum of three months, that, I found out is because they either struggle to find volunteers or they dislike having to recruit. Negotiate and offer what you can as some places go without volunteers for extended periods because of their shortsightedness. Isn’t it better to have someone for a month than no one at all? Not according to some places as they see that person preventing a potential long term volunteer from having a position, although it is not guaranteed.
Read reviews and contact previous volunteers
Online reviews can be suspect, usually you can tell, but check out the reviewer’s profile. Be cautious of places with no reviews, it maybe that previous volunteers had a bad experience, but did not want to influence others, or the place struggles to find volunteers for various reasons. It is worth looking into, so you are fully prepared if they have rules that are so strict, no one wants to volunteer or conditions that are inflexible.
Expectations and realistic obligations
As a volunteer, your prime aim is to help a cause by donating your time to allow them to run their organization. That does not mean you do everything or anything. Everyone is assigned tasks, but naturally one helps out another if need be, that is what volunteering is about after all. It doesn’t mean the paid staff or other volunteers should sit and drink coffee while you sweep and clean the floor to help out a fellow volunteer. By drawing boundaries, like saying, you can help out for 20 minutes, you are sending a message you will help, but expect others to as well. Another instance is working long hours, I was asked to do a 14-hour day followed by a 10-hour day on one occasion. If it is too much, say so and don’t suffer. The previous volunteer spent two days in bed to recover. Some organizations do consider this and will not allow you to work in excess, even if you want to. I had asked to work all seven days of the Christmas charity shelters and was told it was too much for anyone, but was thanked for offering.
If it feels wrong, leave
Despite having made a commitment, if the values and practices you observe are not in line with yours and it is making you uneasy or ill, then apologize and leave. You may not want to tell them why and nor are you obliged to because some places don’t want to hear (despite what their literature says), but you can give notice or pack up and leave. Do not forget you are working for free, despite any guilt of being told you are given food and board. Leftovers and sharing a room and a bathroom with strangers doesn’t equate to 40 hours a week of work. I have seen people leave on the spur of the moment, have breakdowns and become depressed. Altruism is not worth damaging your health for.
Do not feel obliged to do a task if it will damage your health or if it is in conflict with your beliefs. Many organizations want to get things done, with little regard to how it may affect others, for example an elderly woman with a bad hip was asked to move couches each week and to clean around them. It would have been detrimental to her health and told them she could not, however the organization saw it as inconvenient rather than understanding the reason. Explain why and do not feel guilty, you are saving them money and volunteering services that you are able to perform and are not a slave. While we can all learn new skills, it should be a choice and not imposed on us.
Respect. The most important thing is to respect yourself and know what you are doing is to help the bigger picture. Some volunteers find themselves losing their confidence and faith in the cause because of how they are treated. Not all places treat their volunteers with the respect and gratitude they deserve, those that do, have happy volunteers that choose to stay long term or to return. This is a realistic fact, despite it being difficult to understand why.
Have a back up plan. Volunteering is competitive and some places you need to apply well in advance, the criteria is now more than an altruistic yearning to help. Factors such as previous volunteer experience, skills set and the amount of time and when you are available are taken into consideration. It is not unlike applying for a job, so choose several and don’t take it personally if you are rejected. People apply to popular places well in advance, it may be the time you are available, they already have a full quota of volunteers or return volunteers who have established a relationship already. Other people use volunteering to gain experience in a field or as a means to gain a reference; not all volunteers have purely altruistic intentions. Serial volunteers hear of the best places and the ones to avoid and know when to contact the organization and many spend time traveling between organizations.
Volunteering is helping mankind and our fellow human beings, after all roles can be reversed. Don’t be put off by a bad experience or a disorganized organization, but know you are doing good things for the right reasons, and that's all that matters.
© 2014 S T Alvyn