More people are volunteering and more organizations are depending upon the work of volunteers than ever before. So how can volunteers ensure that they can sustain their activity over the long-term?
Service can be another way of contributing to the world around us, to make us feel good, to carry out certain moral responsibilities, to stay engaged and to meet new people. But while we usually enter into service of our own volition, it’s possible to eventually feel trapped, feeling like we’re shouldering lots of responsibility without any support. Following are some points I’ve learned along the (hard) way:
1. Don’t be abused by an organization.
During a recent conversation with a colleague, he mentioned how he would volunteer some of his consulting time to various organizations. In return, the nonprofits would try to squeeze every bit of time and expertise they could get from him, leaving him bitter and feeling abused. If you want to be utilized to the max, great! But if you feel like they’re taking advantage of you, taking too much of your professional service for free, then you need to speak up and clearly define what you’re willing to do and what you won’t. The organization is primarily focused on the organization, whereas volunteers are there to serve it. And that’s fine, but as a volunteer, you need to look out for yourself, especially when the org’s volunteer appreciation gestures fall short.
2. Don’t think they won’t be able to survive without you.
People come and go more often than you may realize. Most organizations are bigger than one person and if they have any substance to them, they won’t fall apart if someone leaves – even if it’s the CEO or the chair. If you have to bow out, they’ll deal with it. We often mistake the personal relationships we develop with the people we serve or work along side for our contribution to the organization’s mission. While we may be contributing a lot, know that the organization functioned before you got there and will continue to do so after you leave. (Unless of course you’re part of a wholesale abandonment of the ship; in which case, there’s bigger concerns the org has to deal with.) This can be initially tough to accept, to realize that your contributions, while valuable, are not indispensable. But with humility, it can also be a comfort, knowing that everything will be alright, and the community ultimately served by the organization will continue to benefit.
3. Know your limits and defend them.
The only one who can truly know your limits is you. The first step is to then know your limits. If you don’t know where your boundaries are, how can you expect anyone else to? Have you ever heard of an organization saying, “let’s go easy on so-and-so this month”? I haven’t. Rather, it’s a push until the volunteer says “this is all I’m able to do”. The organization won’t and can’t know what work duties you have due, the difficulties you may be having at home, or any of the other responsibilities that may be calling for your time and attention. Only you know this and so there will be moments when you have to speak up and either limit what’s being asked of you, or graciously bow out when it becomes obvious that things are not changing.
4. Maximize the face time, minimize the paper work.
While some people would really rather do administrative stuff, I’d generally argue for face-to-face engagement. Organizations usually serve someone or something and as a volunteer, to be on the front lines engaging with the population helps make tangible the impact of your efforts. If you serve at a coordinating level, then accompany other volunteers into service, and have talks with them over coffee about how their service activities are going, helping them address challenges. We’re generally social beings and so working with others – either on stage, one-on-one or supporting in the background – can be the sweetest part of service. You connect with folks, learn their stories, hear about their tragedies and triumphs. While one’s service may be administrative in nature, you need to be sure that the “human connection” component is present.
Delegation is a great leadership skill that can address two issues simultaneously: 1) It can help you focus on the bigger picture while not getting repeatedly bogged down with minute tasks. And 2) It can serve as a learning and growth opportunity for someone with less experience. While there is always more than enough work for everyone, sometimes you need to make bite-sized opportunities available to people. For example, as a community coordinator, I realized that by taking on all the responsibilities myself, I was burning myself out, and not raising anyone else’s capacity to work with me. Since delegating – which takes practice, mind you – I’ve been able to better identify opportunities others can handle, as a group we’ve been able to accomplish more, and I’ve been able to maintain better balance with my family life. And as I strategically delegate tasks of increasing complexity, I’m setting up others to take the lead when I’m ready to step back.
Volunteering and service can be incredibly rewarding, but it’s important to make sure that you’re able to do it in a sustainable manner. Otherwise, you’ll end up being of no good to anyone.
How do you pace yourself for long-term service?