How to volunteer in a healthy way…

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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 aspects to consider

1. Why are you volunteering?

Do you want to help the world, your community, your children?

Do you want to hone your skills, maybe learn new ones?

Do you want to make new friends, find new colleagues etc.?

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, to find likeminded people. 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 unpaid 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. You may also choose a place that can officially confirm the work you did, so that you can add it on your CV.

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. Sometimes we are so enthusiastic about being involved in a program, project, collaboration, that we forget to put our own needs first.

4. Voice your expectations

When you start in a new group, make sure that within a month (or two) 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…

Sometimes, voicing our expectations will mean that we will have to quit, and that can be scary. I recently quit a project that I was very passionate about, but because the circumstances changed and I did not get the values out of it that I initially expected, so my expectations were not alined with what the work could offer, I quit. Like for every job: when we quit, we feel down, we question ourselves, if we did the right thing, if this won’t be turned against us etc. but I know by experience that “when one door closes, another one opens”. 

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 for! Will you receive any kind of reference that you can put on your CV? Unfortunately it can happen that people promise you to have a clear role and position in the organization, and then “forget” to make this happen. This are warning flags for me. Please take your volunteer jobs as normal, paid ones. If you are on the board, make sure it is mentioned on the website, that your contact details are clickable, that people can find you. If only your name appears in a list, it is not that serious…

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 at least a personal reference. And I always, always mentioned and recognized the work of those in charge, with indicating titles, full names, emails etc. 

6. It is for you if…

I regularly do this for my own business and my volunteer jobs: I ask myself plenty of questions:

– 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 that job. 

– Am I getting the (personal!) recognition I need? – many organizations thank their “volunteers” without acknowledging the work the single volunteers did. Thanking volunteers personally for what they have done, how they have contributed is much more rewarding and healthy for a healthy working culture! Most volunteers do their job for being seen and recognized. But “recognizing” comes in many shapes and colors… Make sure you read in between the lines and that the recognition you get is shared in different settings, not only in private meetings! 

– 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…or quit.

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, and is 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. If you are the leader of a volunteer group and your volunteers are not motivated, and you can’t make them get on board with the project, you may want to let them go… It is very important to take good care of ourselves, to be aware of what we need to be happy to help and volunteer. – We can’t pour from an empty cup! 

– Am I enjoying this? If the job/role gives you more energy, makes you get 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 47 talks in 4 years: all voluntary work which I started “solo”, 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). After 2 years I had a fantastic help from other 3 mums who helped streamline the talks in a remarkable way. I like to organize, to plan, so this whole project didn’t cost me much energy – if everything runs smoothly. Wearing many hats simultaneously is what I’m good at, but I reassess every now and then if every hat still fits…

I use to say to my volunteers: “make sure that you keep your cup filled, because you can’t pour from an empty cup!” 

I had the honor and pleasure to collaborate at more than 10 projects, scientific and non-scientific ones. I know by now that there always comes a time where I have to “do the maths”, which means for me to take a step back and evaluate where I stand, where I want to go, if the project is still “filling my cup”, giving me what I need, and if my tasks and my role is still alined with what I do. When this is not the case it is time to say goodbye.

So, when you assess the situation, make sure to voice your needs and expectations, and see how the other party responds. I usually schedule 2-3 meetings to “feel the air” and then take the decision. The reason for this is that those we collaborate with need to know where we stand and I always ask them about “what their plans are”. When these are not clear or not involving us and our skills like we expect and need, even after compromising to solutions that we are not 100% happy with, it’s time to go.

When our hats don’t fit anymore – metaphorically speaking, of course – putting them down will feel like a relieve. That is usually the sign that our decision was right.

Whenever things get out of balance for several reasons; circumstances change, our work is draining us maybe because constant adaptation is required, and it seems like we constantly have to “re-invent-the-wheel”, or swim against the stream, it’s not healthy to stay. 

I always recommend to do the “what if…”–test, i.e. to imagine how you would feel if you  would quit. When the feeling is relief, it’s ok to go. If the feeling is guilt, you may want to find out what causes this guilt and work on that. If you are feeling uncomfortable, ask yourself what makes you feel this way. Is it your sense of responsibility, a friendship that is at stake, or else?

I run my own business and have volunteers working for me, but I am still volunteering myself because I find it important to volunteer time and knowledge, to help wherever I can. It helps me maintain the mindset of being useful and helpful for others first. Of course I need to be able to pay my bills and to keep my company afloat, so, finding the right balance is key for me.

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If you would like some help with self-assessment about your work as a volunteer or in an NGO, contact me at info@UtesInternationalLounge.com.
I’ll help you to make sure you keep your cup filled.

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