We’ve all heard volunteering horror stories, where the person volunteering in good faith is given the most menial volunteer jobs and treated as if they are second-class citizens or worse. It can happen.
Rather than gaining any useful experience or feeling they’re contributing true value while volunteering (especially when their between jobs), the volunteer feels demeaned by the experience. And they feel as if they are totally wasting their time – while not earning a single penny for all their pain and effort.
There’s also another side to the volunteer story. Organizations looking for volunteers are often so overworked that they don’t have adequate volunteer management staff or controls in place. So things get overlooked and under-managed, leaving that volunteer with a less-than-satisfying experience.
But there are also plenty volunteers coming in with a “what can you do for me” mindset, that is not going to get them anything but minimized and mostly ignored. Things work best when you help them along.
So what can you do to maximize your volunteer experience?
- Think carefully about the type of organization ahead of time – Do some online research. Maybe even some informational interviews. The extra work up front may make all the difference in the end. Plus, you never know what else will come from that informational.
- Find out about the organization ahead of time – Once you’ve narrowed down the field where you want to focus your volunteer efforts, and you have a particular organization in mind, find out all you can about it. It will help you better connect with people, and perhaps help you come up with useful ideas.
- Don’t act as if you’re doing them a favor – That may sound obvious, but I’ve seen people come in to volunteer with a chip on their shoulders, and I can assure you that closes off opportunities (now and in the future) and closes off collegial support faster than you can imagine.
- Wear your best attitude at all times – Similar to the one above, your attitude can make all the difference in your volunteer experience. You’ll increase your chances of having a great volunteer experience if you maintain an attitude of helpfulness and support for others. Just as with a job, stay positive and help lighten the load where possible.
- Take time to learn about the people you work with and their jobs – Without seeming like a snoop or investigative reporter, where it feels right, ask questions. You want to know what people do and a little about them, if at all possible. Helps you support them better, and also will help open you up to what really goes on.
- Keep your eyes and ears open for opportunities – This is even easier to do if you’ve established friendly relationships there. And if the questions you ask are about what they do and how they help people, rather than blatantly self-serving things like “How can I get ahead here?” The more your focus is about them and their mission, the more chance you have of eventually finding things you can do there that will feel challenging – and maybe even provide you with extra credentials in the field.
- Take on any job they ask you to do, especially at first – as long as it’s legal or won’t in some way cause you bodily harm. You don’t want to seem like a prima donna. But of course, after a while you may be asked which things you’d like to do more, and that’s when it’s fine to show preferences. Still, do whatever you’re asked with the same helping attitude. (The secret here is that you yourself will enjoy it more. Resistance toward a task only increases dissatisfaction. Smile and enjoy, even if you’re stuffing envelopes.)
- Do all tasks as best as you can, no matter what the job is – This is kind of a zen thing. When you make rice, make rice the best you can with the best attitude. The same is true of volunteer work. Even if you’re folding flyers to stuff into those envelopes. Take the time to fold them evenly. Not only will you feel better about the work, but things like this do leave a good impression.
- If you’re feeling that the work is beneath you, give yourself an attitude check – I know I’m making this an extra point even though it’s more of the same, but I’ve seen people going out of their way to make it clear that the volunteer tasks are beneath them. I think volunteers sometimes worry they will be seen as less if they don’t somehow make it clear who they REALLY are. But exactly the opposite happens. You seem smaller, not bigger, by looking down on the work. Do your work well and with pride. The only one who has to know for sure who you are inside is YOU. I’ve answered phones after having been a senior manager, and I did it with a smile, never forgetting who I really am. It leaves a lasting impression, even if you aren’t getting the feedback. But of course, also watch for chances to politely offer your skills, letting them know little bits of what you really do, and letting them ask for more if they are interested. I always found ways to share who I am – without coming in like a “aren’t you lucky to have me” steamroller.
- Look for extra ways to lighten the staff’s days – This may seem small, but being the happiness fairy when you volunteer can be a nice way to add to everyone’s day. That said, be sensitive to the environment and personalities. There are some places where a small bowl of candy or maybe even just a friendly smile is more than enough happiness. Other places, you may see lots of ways to help add a little extra lightness to the atmosphere. Or simply, if you have spare time and someone seems to have their hands full, see if they can use some help without waiting to be asked to help.
- Make connections and build relationships (some of these can last your whole career) – This will help you enjoy your time there more and help you stay connected enough to see opportunities when they arise. It can also help you understand the organization at a deeper level, once more opening up the quality of your experience and more possibilities where you might not have otherwise seen them.
- Help them manage you, but do it gracefully and tactfully (especially if they seem especially short-handed or simply need a little help) – You may have heard of the idea of “managing up”, meaning you help your manager manage you if they don’t seem to know how. This takes a good deal of finesse and lots of sincere respect, but if your experience is less than it could be because there is no one available to manage you most of the time, look for a chance to gently help suggest things for you to take on – and maybe even a method of reporting your accomplishments and soliciting feedback to make sure you’re on track. But perhaps wait a while before jumping to any such conclusions. They just may be easing you in slowly.
I hope that at least some of that helps you get more out of any volunteer work you take on. Whether you’re between jobs and need something to do, or you’re setting in place some next steps to a career change, in most cases you can make a big difference to the quality of your own experience!
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