I lead several volunteer groups in the past 20 years and have helped many volunteers who were close to give up to change their way to volunteer into a more healthy one, for them, their family and the organization or group they were volunteering for.
Here are 6 question you should ask yourself:
1. Why are you considering to volunteer?
Do you want to help the world, your community, your children?
Do you want to hone your own skills, maybe learn new ones?
Do you want to make new friends?
Do you like what you do?
Do you want to share your skills with others or give something back?
– Before starting to volunteer, try to find out what you want to achieve. What is your goal? What are your expectations? For how long do you think you can or want to commit?
I volunteered for several reasons: to connect with the community, to hone my skills, learn new ones. The advantage of a volunteer job is that it’s usually time limited. You probably won’t volunteer in the same position for more than 2 years – I always recommend to change after 1,5 or 2 years as staying too long in the same role can take its toll on us: as it is usually an unpayed job, if we do it for too long, we tend to do more than necessary and not feel satisfied anymore. When you feel this, it’s time to say goodbye or to change something…
2. Choose the right role, the right organization…
Depending on what you answered under 1., choose the right place to volunteer. If you want to hone your skills (or learn new ones), and maybe want to gap a period where you don’t have a job, choose an organization that gives you the opportunity to grow and learn. If your intent is to socialize, a more flexible and relaxed setting is better (some volunteer works at schools, communities etc.)
3. Start small…and learn to say “no”
If you have already a busy schedule or if you are not sure if the volunteer job is the right one for you, start with only a few hours per week. Then, if you find you enjoy the work and have more time to pursue it, gradually take on more. – If you are too enthusiastic at the beginning, and say “yes” to too many tasks, people will be more likely to ask you more than you actually can or want to give. You may end up feeling exhausted instead of energized and rewarded by the work you’re doing!
When I volunteered for the first time after years, and after a longer break from work, I was so glad to have a new meaning and purpose that I overdid it. I committed to more than I really wanted and I resigned – yes, like in a real job! – after 6 months.
4. Voice your expectations
When you start in a new group, make sure that within a month of time you make clear what you expect from this new role. This might need that you have more meetings than expected, that you have to discuss a lot and negotiate, but it is better to find out asap if the new role fits you or not. – Like in a real job you can get overwhelmed and burned out quickly…
When I started volunteering in my 20ies I was way too shy to speak up every time I felt that something wasn’t going well. I kept on saying “it’s only a volunteer job and I can quit anytime”, but maybe I’m too responsible and conscientious: I once volunteered in a non-healthy position for 2 years and was very close to a burnout. Thanks to a very good friend who saw it coming, I quit on time…
5. Ask many questions…
Ask questions and do your research. What kind of prospectives will you have in the new role? Do you have a say when it comes to decisions? Are you ok with the role that is offered to you? How many hours are expected from you? What if you’ll work more hours?…
Sometimes you need to get your feet wet before realizing that the job is not for you. Don’t hesitate to speak up and quit if it’s not what you need right now.
I have volunteered in positions where I got a reference at the end. This is something you should always ask! Will you receive any kind of reference that you can put on your CV?
With the volunteer groups I am leading, I make it clear that if the role they choose is comparable to the one in a real job, i.e. if they take some responsibilities, use some specific skills, I will issue them a personal reference.
6. It is for you if…
I regularly do for my own business and my volunteer jobs. If you volunteer in a certain position, ask yourself regularly:
– Am I getting the feedback that keeps me going? – If your work is taken for granted and not “seen”, it is not rewarding enough. Getting regular feedback is essential. If you don’t get it automatically, ask for it. And if you still don’t get it, ask yourself why and if it’s healthy to keep on doing it.
– Am I getting the (personal!) recognition I need? – many organizations thank their “volunteers”: thanking volunteers personally is much more rewarding and healthy for a good relationship!
– How do I feel after an intense week? – Volunteer work usually requires a lot of flexibility, which can be very challenging. But it also can be immensely rewarding! If after a week of intense volunteer work you feel exhausted and grumpy, ask yourself why. Is there anything you can change in the way you work, the way your role is defined (maybe you want more responsibility, or less, or do something else). Voice your needs and if you don’t get the response you expect and need, find a way to change your position…
After great accomplishments we should take a time out to assess what went well and what went wrong, what could be done better. Always. – If your volunteer group is lead by a person who feels overwhelmed or unsatisfied, struggling, it is very unlikely that you’ll get recognized for the effort you make and it’s not a healthy environment to spend your energy for. It is very important to take good care of ourselves, to be aware of what we need to be happy to help and volunteer.
– Am I enjoying this? If the job/role gives you more energy, makes you stand up in the morning, it’s a good sign. If you wake up in the middle of the night, worrying or struggling: it’s the time to quit. As simple as that. Don’t feel guilty that you quit, that you speak up. Volunteering is not only giving, it’s also receiving. If you feel that you are constantly giving and not receiving enough in return, it’s not healthy to go on.
My very own experience
In the past 29 years (!) I have been regularly volunteering in many different settings and roles. I have created and coordinated student groups, local and international groups etc.
At my childrens’ school for example I first helped out occasionally at festive lunches, school trips etc., then as class representative (in total for 6 classes in 4 years) and PRC (Parent Representative Commitee, a sort of PTA) and finally as Team Leader of a Welcome Team and a Sessions Team at our Family Association. As leader of one of these groups I organized more than 20 talks in the last 2 years: all voluntary work and as a “solo volunteer”, i.e. I did the whole funnel, from finding speakers, agreeing on topics, coordinating the venue and the financial part until the actual speech (including all the technical aspects too). It may sound crazy, but I’m passionate about organizing and planning, so this didn’t cost me much energy – if everything runs smoothly. Wearing many hats simultaneously is what I’m good at, but I must be sure that every hat fits…
I use to say to my volunteers: “make sure that you keep your cup filled, that you fill it up from time to time, because you can’t pour from an empty cup!”… So when it was time for my regular assessment a few weeks ago, I realized that I spent much more time with emailing, double (triple- etc.) checking everything, for my volunteering than for my own business. Two of my hats felt like not fitting anymore – metaphorically speaking, of course… Things had gone out of balance for several reasons; circumstances had changed and required a constant adaptation and “re-inventing-the-wheel” which I was not able and willing to do anymore.
I did the “what if…”–test and imagined how it would feel if I would quit one (or two) of the jobs and decided which ones to keep and which ones to let go.
I am still volunteering, and it’s surely thanks to the fantastic work of my teams, that I don’t spend 20 hours per week anymore, but can keep the time under 8 hours a week– the right amount for me to keep my cup full!
If you would like some help with self-assessment, contact me at info@UtesLounge.com. I’ll help you to make sure you keep your cup filled.
(this post was also published on my other site Ute’s International Lounge)