Four Important Things to Understand About Volunteers (from a Mom Who Volunteers Too Much)

Four Important Things to Understand About Volunteers (from a Mom Who Volunteers Too Much) October 9, 2014

Lately I’m being eaten alive by everything on my to-do list. It’s hard to communicate just how crazed my schedule is without 1) boring you to pieces, and 2) sounding like a first-class whiner. So I’ll just say there is an awful lot going on.

Many of the tasks keeping me so busy are related to various volunteer jobs. I do all the registration paperwork and financial record keeping for my daughter’s Girl Scout troop. I am a “room parent” for both of my elementary school kids, which means I am a liaison between their teachers, the PTO, and the other parents of kids in their respective classes, coordinating parent involvement in classroom and PTO activities. I am one of three volunteers who manage the PTO’s major fundraising project, which involves selling and tracking payments for nearly $20,000 worth of grocery gift cards every month. At church, I serve on the vestry, write a weekly blog post, and teach occasional adult education classes. Many weeks I also pull “parent duty” during my kids’ church choir rehearsals, provide food for a special event, buy and deliver groceries for the church’s ongoing food pantry collection, and do other occasional volunteer jobs.

Sometimes my volunteer work is fun and rewarding. Sometimes it is frustrating and exhausting. However things are going, doing this work is my choice. I’m proud of my contributions to important communities in my family’s life.

That said, it would be nice if things weren’t so often so frustrating. Not surprisingly, the greatest source of frustration isn’t the work itself—although I do occasionally curse at my printer when it’s not cooperating, or bemoan the Girl Scouts’ devotion to reams of paperwork. The greatest source of frustration is other people’s assumptions and perceptions of what it means to be a volunteer.

In an effort to make myself and the other hard-working, exhausted volunteers I know feel a little better and in the (probably misguided) hope that I might challenge people’s assumptions about volunteer work, I present my Four Important Things to Understand About Volunteers.

We volunteer because we see important work that needs doing, not because we have copious free time. People often seem to assume that those of us who frequently volunteer must have more open and flexible schedules than others do. I often hear comments like, “It’s great that you have the time to give to this project,” or “I’d love to volunteer but I work.” We don’t volunteer because we have lots of flexible free time and are looking to fill it. Most of us have part- or full-time jobs and many responsibilities, from other children (sometimes at other schools that also need volunteers) to ailing parents and small businesses. We volunteer because we see a need that we can fill, and because we care about the communities of which we are a part. (That’s not to imply that there are no good reasons, including demanding work responsibilities, for saying “no” to a plea for volunteers. We all go through times of our lives when we need to focus especially on our work or our families, or when we’re just plumb worn out, so can’t take on even the most worthwhile volunteer tasks. Such situations call for grace, not resentment that I’m fitting this volunteer work into my schedule and others aren’t doing the same.)

We appreciate feedback (but not nitpicking). A common assumption, among both volunteers and those we serve, is that working for free means that volunteers shouldn’t be held to high standards. For example, people will apologize profusely when they come to me with a question or concern, saying, “I know you’re a volunteer and I hate to bother you.” Likewise, some volunteers become immediately defensive if someone points out a problem with something they did (or didn’t do), launching into a recitation of how busy they are and how they are “just” a volunteer. Volunteers are accountable for the work we do (or fail to do). Volunteer work is essential to the smooth running of schools, churches, and nonprofit organizations, and incomplete or poor quality work hurts the organization’s functioning. If I fail to clearly communicate vital information or I keep shoddy records, my mistakes affect the organization’s work and how others perceive it. That’s not an invitation to heap criticism on a volunteer who occasionally messes up. Accountability is important, but so is grace and understanding. Also, accountability does not equal nitpicking. Complaints about the colors used on event materials or the overabundance of cupcakes at the bake sale are best kept to yourself. And if you are tempted to provide detailed laundry lists of everything you would do differently if you were doing this job—particularly if you do so without first asking questions to find out why we do things as we do—consider volunteering to do the job yourself.

Leaders need to consider volunteer resources as seriously as they consider monetary resources. In organizations devoted to the welfare of human beings over the bottom line, such as schools, churches, and nonprofits, we detail-oriented realists are at a disadvantage. Such organizations thrive on big visions and inspired leadership. We realists introduce our dull practicalities into exciting conversations about possibilities, and our questions about how exactly this new thing will get done are not always warmly welcomed. When it comes to money, even the most inspired leaders usually consider budgetary constraints when discussing new ideas. I’ve noticed, however, that actual or potential constraints on volunteer labor are not so readily considered. Leaders tend to assume that if a new project is compelling enough, volunteers will step up. Much of the time, they’re right. But what they might not notice is that the volunteers who step up are often the same volunteers who have been stepping up for other projects. This creates a false sense of abundant volunteer energy, when it’s really just a small group of very dedicated people.

For example, I don’t particularly want to be a “room parent” for my kids’ classrooms. It’s not a terribly hard job. I admire my kids’ teachers a great deal, and want to support them. But I do so many other time-consuming jobs for the school that I would prefer to leave the room parent job to others. So why have I been a room parent, usually for more than one classroom, every year but one since 2006? Because every year, I hold off signing up until the last minute, and when no one else signs up, I step in. Other parents do the same. So the overall impression is that our school has no trouble having enough room parents. But the reality is that we are filling those positions by enlisting volunteers who are already doing a lot for the school. Unfortunately, in organizations for which volunteers provide necessary human resources, leaders often interpret questions about whether we have enough volunteers to support new initiatives as pessimistic complaints, not practical concerns from committed but overstretched personnel.

We appreciate sincere and simple expressions of thanks. It may be corny and it may be cliché, but a few words of thanks go a long way toward making me feel that all of my volunteer labor is worth it. I send a lot of emails for my various school volunteer jobs, about upcoming events, payments due, and forms that need to be filled out. Some days I might send out three different emails to three different groups of several dozen people each. Getting just one message saying, “Thanks so much for this information. I appreciate all the work you put into this program,” is a tremendous esteem boost. I feel that my work is worth it when I see how much money we raise for the school, or see a room full of laughing Girl Scouts, or succeed in garnering sufficient donations for our classroom raffle basket. But nothing makes me feel as good about the time I give than a simple word of thanks. I am striving to offer the same simple boost to the volunteers whom I rely on in other organizations.


So, how about it? If you are a volunteer or work regularly with volunteers, what do you think of my list of Important Things? Would you change anything? Add to it?

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