January 08, 2014

Volunteering: The Slacker's Guide to Contributing a Little

When I think of volunteering, I think of people who sign up for the Peace Corps.
And then I feel shitty about myself.

If you are someone with any spare time, then you probably are either already volunteering or feeling guilty as hell that you're not.

And note: if you lack spare time not because of work and family demands, but because you can't drag your butt away from the Netflix queue after you belatedly discover 3 gripping hilarious brilliantly written tv shows 5-8 seasons after they have begun, and you absolutely MUST catch up with them all, as soon as possible, then you probably feel guilty too.

For some people, volunteering is second nature: you do it constantly, generously, both when it is easy and when it is not. It is part of who you are as a person. You people can probably only scratch your heads in perplexity at those of us who sit on the sidelines and tend not to contribute.

Ever visited MessyMimi's blog?  She rescues orphan kitties and raises them (sometimes mind-boggling enormous numbers of kitties), and does all kinds of other great stuff, and she does it like "of course, who wouldn't!" without any bitching or whining as would be the case if I were doing it.

So yeah, this post is not aimed at you wonderful folks--though of course we Volunteering-Impaired-Slackers will certainly be grateful for any suggestions you have.

Because for others of us... it is not second nature. We may try, we sign up for things occasionally, but we either feel anxious or overwhelmed or bored or it's inconvenient and we start to dread it and there are so many other things we could be doing and so we make our excuses and wander away again.

All that stuff about how great you feel doing it?  Well, for us, as a rule, not so much.

So here are some 5 quick tips from an only Slightly Reformed Volunteer-Slacker as to how to either join the party, or at least stop feeling guilty about it.




1.  Find the Right Thing

Duh, right?  But this is harder than it sounds--especially if you know others who volunteer somewhere, and they ask you to help too and it seems like something you should want to do... nah, don't go that route if you know you'll just dread it.

You need a cause you really care about, and a role that doesn't sound unpleasant.  One site for finding volunteer opportunities is Volunteer Match, but there are tons more if you google. Or if you wander around your own town with an eye to where you might be of assistance.

For me, the perfect volunteer gig is working at "the pound" visiting the cats and kittens.


I like cats but can't, with our mobile lifestyle, have one.  I spend just a few hours a week petting and playing with kitties who may have spent days and days alone in their cage--and sure, busy staff members provide food and water and medical care, but they don't have much time for cuddling. There are a lot of cats, and not that many volunteers.

The county animal shelter is not a happy place, despite all the wonderful people who work there. It's in the nature of an underfunded public institution.  But the time I spend feels helpful. And really, petting cats is kind of a win/win for a cat-lover, right? What's not to like about hanging with friendly felines? Most of it is pretty darn pleasant.



2.  But Accept that Some of it Will Suck

If you are a Volunteering-Impaired Slacker, don't believe all the studies that make it sound as though you will feel so engaged and enriched and uplifted by your volunteer experience that you will achieve instant radiant happiness.

If you are an anxious person, you will likely be anxious about your role, however simple.

If you are easily bored, you will probably get antsy.

There will likely be rules and policies, some of them sensible and some of them stupid.


There is a Shelter Rule that all photos taken must be out of focus.
I swear.

There may be many days you won't feel like it even if it is the "perfect" volunteer opportunity.

Bottom line? Don't feel like there is something wrong with you if it feels a bit more like getting a good workout than going to a movie.  You feel better about yourself after a workout right? And you may even find moments of joy and satisfaction.

So yeah, this is to say that I'm writing this on Shelter Day and I don't particularly feel like going. Just like I generally don't feel like going to the gym even after all these years and mostly good experiences there.

But just like the gym, I magnify the downside of the pound: it's sad there, and I have other things that need doing, and there are always way more lonely cats than time. There is cat poop involved and insanely loud dogs barking in the background and you have to wash your hands 5,000 times to avoid spreading Dangerous Cat Diseases. Some of the cats can be mean little stinkers! (As my own beloved shy cat was herself whenever she was scared and confined somewhere, like the vet.) However, most of the cats are insanely affectionate and grateful...which then makes it really really hard to put them back in their cages again where they may languish for several days before anyone pays attention to them again.

But I will have many moments of contentment and be glad I went.  I know this, and so I put myself on autopilot just like I do going to the gym.

3.  Know Your Own Limits and be Prepared to be Kind of an Asshole About Defending Them

This is a challenge for black and white thinkers: better not to volunteer at all than to be seen as not contributing enough, right?

Well, you may know intellectually that's stupid. But be prepared to defend yourself against feeling like a lame volunteer for not doing more than whatever you signed on to do.

If you are a volunteering-slacker by nature, I can pretty much guarantee that anywhere you try to volunteer, there will be people who are doing way more than you.  If you find you love what you do and want to contribute more? Great!  But a volunteer who reliably does the minimum and refuses to do anything extra yet who hangs around for a really long time is, I would argue, more valuable than one who gets guilted into contributing more than feels comfortable and quits.

I am a really shitty volunteer at the pound--I'm only here half the year, I'm gone for holidays, and never help with anything "extra." I pretty much do my minimum and go home.  And you know what? I'm ok with that.

4.  Keep In Mind It May Help Your Health and Happiness 

According to a research compilation of 40 studies, volunteering is linked with improved health and happiness! Though as the researchers pointed out, it could be that happy healthy people are more likely to volunteer in the first place. That would not particularly surprise me. As I said, for some of us the "happiness" is not instantaneous.

I think for me though, noticing the moments when I'm really glad I'm there, and saying goodbye to that nagging "I'm not volunteering, OMG do I suck" feeling and boosting my self-esteem... that's gotta be healthy, right?

5. Be OK with Just Writing a Big Check

I kinda suspect that the hands on thing is over-hyped in terms of helpfulness to worthy causes.

Sure, it's great to knit a cap for a chemo patient or pet a cat or hand out a hot meal, yet making a financial contribution that can help hundreds of cancer patients or abandoned cats or hungry people is not an inferior way to contribute!  I believe most charities are very, very grateful for financial contributions, and many people do not have the time nor the inclination to get down in the trenches.

I say if you write a big enough check, you can absolve yourself of any guilt and get back to that Netflix queue.

How about you guys, how do you feel about volunteering?

38 comments:

  1. i used to volunteer at a pound and have 4 animals to show for it. I can't do that one anymore as leaving them behind or worse CHOOSING one animal over another to give a forever home to was breaking my heart. I volunteer at a small local museum now that greatly appreciates the 3 hrs a week I can give them in no small part because my education directly applies to their work. I sucked at one volunteer opportunity and I excel at the other. To thine ownself be true.

    Barb

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    1. Barb, you ended up with 4? Don't tell me that! :) Totally know what you mean about having to choose. It's almost easier to know I can't come home with any.

      And "to thine own self be true" are excellent words to live by! Well, except for the true part of myself that would love to eat nothing but cake and cheeseburgers all day. That part I gotta be careful about.

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  2. While I believe volunteers are essential to many organizations, I have yet to find one that will actually put me to work. It's frustrating to want to help, arrive as scheduled and then stand around twiddling my thumbs for hours. I wish I could say this is something that happened only once in my life, but it seems to be every place I have ever volunteered. Stupidly, I haven't given up yet and continue to try. I will certainly agree that it makes it a lot easier if you find something that you believe in and want to support. I hope one day to actually do some good for someone. :O)

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    1. Shoot G.E., that's so frustrating! And I don't think your experience is unusual. Good for you for continuing to try though, I'd probably rationalize my way into "not my fault, free pass to say the hell with it!"

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    2. G.E., I sure hope you find something!

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  3. Lately my volunteering is either at one of the boys' schools or at the Governor's Row House (oops, I guess it isn't volunteering since we own it but I feel like it is since I don't make a penny!!!). I've been pretty selfish with my time on the volunteer front this year actually and for now I'm just going to tell myself it's OK.

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  4. I will be doing a lot of volunteer work once I retire. I have done some volunteer IT work for retirement homes when I was unemployed so I know I will be able to do that. Right now I leave the house by 5AM and get home after 9PM so I just can't.
    I wouldn't mind teaching synchronized swimming in the future and I dream about having the skill to teach some other type of exercise class.
    I do a few jobs for friends who volunteer during the year, but it is a big disruption. Right now I am a guilt soaked check writer.

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    1. Cindy, I'd say anyone who is only free from 9pm to 5am and has to squeeze all of Life into that amount of time does not need to feel the least bit guilty about writing checks! And love the synchronized swimming idea, bet there aren't many out there with skills in teaching that.

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  5. Volunteering is rewarding, I volunteered my time for a community care day when I worked for my old company. All of those that volunteered were woman and we painted the outside of the local Girls/Boys club in a pretty rough part of town. When we arrived the men told us what they wanted done, as women often do we diviied up the tasks and were almost done by the time lunch rolled around. The men couldn't running the Club were floored that we were almost done such a big project. We bought pizza for everyone and we got to meet so many of the kids that use the facility after school or to basically stay off the streets at night until their parents get home from work. It was incredibly rewarding. More often then not I write a check, for one thing I'm so hypersensitive, I don't think I would be able to volunteer at a homeless shelter without bursting into tears every 5 mins. I love animals and I definitely would love to donate my time to my local animal shelter, but then again, I feel as though I would adopt every one of those pets and then be arrested for a pet hoarder. But I do try to do a lot of selfless things along my path. Last winter while driving to grab something to eat at Shaws I passed a homeless man, it was freezing out, I bought him a sandwich, some crackers, a vitamin water and gave him 5 dollars, he was the nicest guy and my heart just broke for him, and then I proceeded to cry the whole way home. But just little things that make me feel good, like I've paid for people behind me at the toll booths, opening doors for people, letting people with less groceries go before me in line, I mean I know it's not as monumental as volunteering my time or donating money, but making one persons day is better than nothing and it always makes me feel good.

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    1. As my mother told me, if we all do a little, it will make a big difference!

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    2. All those acts of kindness sound pretty monumental to me, Starving Bitch!

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  6. Someone told me that the best way to find what you want to be when you grow up is to think about what work you would do even if they didn't pay you. That seems to me that it would work with deciding where to volunteer, too.

    And yes, the most fun you will ever have with your money is giving it away, so if you just can't volunteer time, send a bit of money. It will help.

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  7. I did some volunteering at christmas for one of these charities that sends shoeboxes of presents to children overseas. It was really good fun - sorting all the shoeboxes out and checking the gifts. And my husband went too and help load boxes on lorries. I think I shall do it again for a couple of days next year. Its a good way to volunteer when you work full time because its an annual one off thing, not a regular commitment.

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    1. I have contributed to this before...it is a great charity!

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    2. Anon, that sounds like a great idea, and help is so appreciated around the holidays. And thanks for stopping by... I'm guessing UK from the "lorries?" Or could be down under... anyway, welcome!

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    3. Yes I'm in the UK. Gave myself away there :)

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  8. On the not-as-or-not-even-important end... I say go for anything that involves a uniform! I spent a summer traipsing up to Mt. Rainier to spend full days as a "Meadow Rover". Our job was to be nice to folks, provide helpful info/answer questions and keep them off the fragile alpine meadows and on the trail. It was great! Except when it wasn't.

    Great: we got to wear pretty cool uniforms! Most folks thought we actually knew what we were doing (we didn't)! Got to meet loads of interesting people! Got a great workout going up and down the trail! And talk about your beauty spot!!!

    Not Great: the uniforms meant folks could see you easily and make you actually do your job :( Met loads of "interesting" (read "scary") people :( And you kinda had to lay down the law on the whole stay on the trail part ("What do you mean we can't lime out lines for a soccer field?!" - Yes. This actually happened. Or - 'strongly suggest' things to folks ("Hey - you might want to consider donning more than a sleeveless T and flip flops on if you're going above 9,000 feet where there's snow and ice and crevasses and stuff."

    Still - I say go for the uniform (and then write a check as penance when you bail due to general annoyance).

    More seriously, I totally applaud anyone who does anything remotely altruistic or for the betterment of man or animal or plant kind! I don't care how often, for what group/cause/idea, or anything else. You did something wonderful and way too many days go by when that's not even on my radar. We are ALL better off because really good people are out there doing this stuff while people like me coast or phone it in. I'm grateful. Truly.
    Anon

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    1. Uniforms? I'm with you on that, I'd do a LOT more volunteering if cool uniforms were involved. The shelter aprons are kinda nerdy. :)

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  9. I must have volunteered for something at sometime in my life, but I can't think when. Holding office in politically active organizations comes to mind, but I'm far too burned out to do that again, and that was in the eighties! Too many volunteer things seem to involve lots of humans, and you have to pay me to do humans. Of course animals are my job. (We get volunteers at the clinic, sometimes, teenagers who want to get animal experience. We have no idea what to do with them, we don't have time to train them if they're not going to be actual workers. So when you are looking for a place to volunteer, be sure you'd actually be useful.) I've wanted to participate in creek or roadside clean-ups in my former home, but they are on Saturdays, of course, when most people don't work.
    Can you tell the whole subject makes me cranky?
    Mary Anne in Kentucky

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  10. I'm a volunteer in several ways, but the primary focus of my volunteer work is hospice. I've been doing it almost 6 years. How I came to it is that I had gone to nursing school but never became a nurse due to life biting me. Several years later I saw an ad asking for hospice volunteers in my work newsletter, and thought, "Oh! That would use those skills I learned." I suggest to others that you find something you know you're good at and enjoy, then think about who could use that skill/talent. (Agree with the commenter who said look for what you'd do as work even if no one paid you.) Working a few hours at the pound is wonderful. The important thing is not to overcommit yourself, or do things because you think you should. Do what you want to do, for people who need it done. If you sign up for a volunteer gig and they don't use you, quit that one and find one that really needs you. BTW Crabby, I rarely comment here because I get your posts in my email box. I love reading them.

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    1. Laura, hospice is a tough place to volunteer. I am so glad for people like you who are able to make a wonderful difference. Thank you.

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    2. I'm with Kimberley, hospice takes a really special sort of person Laura!

      And thank you SO much for reading Laura, and so glad you de-lurked and left such a great comment!

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    3. Laura, one of my early yoga teachers was a hospice RN; teaching yoga was her volunteer work and stress-relief all rolled into one. Ever since I've had great admiration for anyone who can do hospice work.

      Mary Anne in Kentucky

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  11. I love that you go and spend time with the kitties!!! I like animals, but don't have pets...I get my fill when I visit friends with pets though.

    The Boss and I volunteer at a food bank and we love it. I currently only go in when I can, due to my schedule, but he goes every week and helps out over the holidays when they have a whole different set up for Christmas.

    When I worked full time, cheques were the way I went, but then I started reading about how much of the cheque actually goes to the cause. Now my causes are more likely to be people I actually know, or who are experiencing an immediate need (like a local guy who can't afford the gym, but could be headed for the Olympics).

    Also, I met with a group of friends on January 1st and we collected hats, scarves, gloves, canned food, gift cards, books for children, pet food, and a donation for the humane society etc. to go to local men's, women's, and animal shelters. We decided to meet every month around the 14th and pick different causes to give to. It is going to be a blast!

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    1. Kimberley, I'm not surprised that you contribute both financially and with your time! The idea of a monthly donation club is both generous and kinda brilliant, please keep us posted!

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  12. ALWAYS.
    WEEKLY if not finding ways for daily.

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  13. I have learned (over and over and over again) to be careful about volunteering. I belong to quilt guilds. These are groups of people who like to make quilts. The meet once a month to share their quilting successes, to become inspired by others, to take classes, to socialize, or to eat the treats and snacks. They have a newsletter. They have outreach programs where quilts are made and donated to those in need. They have membership dues. There is a full slate of officers to help keep the whole thing running. At one time I was in charge of membership, the newsletter, and the web site….because we couldn't get anyone else to volunteer to do these things!
    I have since, gradually, gotten out of each position, after doing them for several years. When volunteering ceases to become fun or rewarding, on a regular basis, it is time to back off or get out! (my opinion)

    I also volunteer two days a week at our super-duper senior center, as a healthy living/weight-loss coach/leader/teacher. Our senior center is more like a fantastic resort almost. We have everything from a gym, a heated pool, a lap pool, exercise classes, and SO much more. It keeps me motivated, to lead the class. I think I get as much out of it as those that attend, get from me! I also lead the yoga group about once a month, giving our regular volunteer teacher a day off.

    Sometimes it is more like work and less rewarding. MOST of the time though, volunteering is pretty cool. Of course I don't have a job any more, other than homemaker. It would be nice to be paid for what I do, in dollars. Of course if that happened, I couldn't just do things the way I wanted to do them…I'd have to justify the paycheck and have regular hours and all that.

    I could not work at an animal shelter. I would bring home strays.

    I have now rambled on and on and on. Sorry! I think I shall go for a walk in the ice/rain/sleet/sneet/snow storm we are currently having. :D

    (ps hugs and smooches Crabcake.)

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    1. Backatcha sherri! And there is never a need to apologize for a long comment at Cranky Fitness! Love your contributions.

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  14. All excellent points, Crabby. I don't currently volunteer for anything and I feel no guilt.

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  15. A really great post Jan - I agree - the policies & crap sometimes - I hated that in the corporate world but I guess it is everywhere as I found even as much in nonprofit...

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  16. Death Ride GrandmaJanuary 9, 2014 at 4:01 PM

    It's kind of funny, kind of sad, that volunteering can be perceived as such a bureaucratic thing. Of course, if you want to work with the local symphony (and you happen to live in NYC), there is probably a lot going on & lots of layers & yeah, they probably won't put you in charge of the programming right away. But I've always tried to think of volunteering as just one variation on giving to others. And since my life has been amazingly good and lucky, I have always thought it pretty important to share. Still, lots of what I do would not look like much on a resume. Why should it, really?

    You can give blood. You can be sure to pay attention to others when you are out, and hold doors, or offer help to tourists looking bewildered and clutching maps. You can offer to help the friend's kid with math if the friend hates the subject. You can pick up some litter as you walk along. Visit a nursing home. Drive a neighbor in for that dental procedure. Think what the world would be like if everyone was looking for chances to make it just a teeny bit nicer. To me, that's what this is all about. (Am I allowed to say that in a Cranky place???)

    And that makes it very easy for me to make it a one-time visit if I happen to volunteer for a place that turns out to be run by someone who was really just looking for a place to be powerful (bossy).
    Having said all that, I also like to work with organizations that often know more about how to help effectively than I do. I have sat on school boards, been an adult literacy tutor, led bike rides, reached out to other brain tumor patients, assembled bikes for poor kids, been a camp counselor for a week, participated in clinical trials, and given money - it's all pretty satisfying and mostly fun.

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    1. I read through your comment, DRG, going "But that's not volunteer work," at almost everything. Apparently I don't think it counts unless it's a regular timed commitment, and not something you would naturally do. One such volunteer situation in my past was when my coop was a lot smaller and more coop-y, and most of the work was done by volunteers. (I forget how many paid staff there were in those days, but fewer than six.) You weren't absolutely required to volunteer in order to have a membership, but if people didn't, the work didn't get done and the coop would fail. That just doesn't seem like the same thing to me.

      Mary Anne in Kentucky

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    2. DRG, I love the way you frame volunteering, and am not surprised in the least that you find so many ways, both formal and informal, to do it.

      And Mary Anne, it IS funny that you're not counting volunteer work unless it's something you wouldn't want to do! Sure sounds like you help out when you can, and holy moly, it's not like you exactly have a lot of spare time!

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    3. A few years ago a good friend who was in the midst of getting divorced and moving from his upper-middle-class suburban marital abode to an urban condo in a far grittier neighborhood was discussing the various volunteer opportunities he was exploring as a way to get involved in his new community. At the time I had a case of teabags sitting on my hall stairs that had been there for three weeks or so, ever since I asked another friend to pick them up at Costco for me with the idea I was going to give them to a local homeless shelter that had, in the newspaper, asked for donations of such. I said to my volunteering friend, "See, this is why you are a far better person than I am. Not only couldn't I be arsed to pick up my own damn tea bags for charity, once having them dropped off at my house I haven't even gotten my act together enough to bring them to the shelter on my day off." And he basically told me to shut up and listed back to me a whole litany of things I do every day that supposedly make the world a better place.

      But, like Mary Anne, I was like, nah, doesn't count :-)

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  17. I've been very fortunate to be able to do volunteer work as a surgeon! Being able to give with the skills I learned has been a gift I give myself! Currently I have planned on going to western Virginia in the summer to work with the less fortunate population there.

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    1. good on ya' dr j!

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  18. Crabby, what you do is just lovey! We've been adopted by 3 feral cats and I've changed my lifestyle for them. I accept the fact that they'll never let us get close enough pet or cuddle :( I can see how it would be very motivating for you to go, knowing that the kitties may not be touched again, for days.
    Just about all my volunteer work, except for the soup kitchen, is based on the profession from which I retired early, so I could devote myself to it. In fact, I chose my profession as a result of the volunteer work I did as an adolescent. Like you and other Cranketeers, sometimes I feel a bit lazy before starting out, but I never regret it. I also do some of it by phone or online though. That's always good for me; I prefer it , but it is not always possible. We also make donations, but probably more so when our volunteering time is reduced for some reason.

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