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Mind Body and Soul: Serving with Smarts

By Michelle Vessel


Forget about money; volunteers make the world go ‘round. Whether you’re called to serve as a Sunday school teacher, Girl Scout troop leader or an envelope stuffer for your favorite nonprofit, chances are you’ve donated your time and skills to a group, cause or campaign of some kind at one time or another. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, volunteerism in the United States is now at a 30-year high with more than 61 million volunteers over the age of 16 donating an average of nearly four hours a week, equivalent to $239 billion in unpaid annual staff time.

Volunteering offers a wide range of benefits, from sharpening job skills to an improved sense of well being. Sounds like a win-win situation, right? What could possibly go wrong? Well, quite frankly, a lot. From disenchantment and personality conflicts to losing your sense of productivity, charitable service comes with its fair share of pitfalls.  Avoiding these road bumps will help to ensure a volunteering experience that’s not only rewarding but sane as well.

Before You Leap

Working for a good cause is never a bad thing, especially when the benefits extend beyond enhanced professional skills and into improved health and wellness. Studies have linked volunteering to lower blood pressure, decreased rates of chronic disease and heightened mood. That’s as good a reason as any to donate some free time to helping others, even without the promise of a paycheck. But taking a leap into volunteer service isn’t always all it’s cracked up to be, and even the most noble effort can end up hindered by bureaucracy and disenchantment.

Most volunteer organizations don’t operate by the strict guidelines used to run traditional businesses. Efficiency, focus and unity of purpose can often fall by the wayside. As such, only one-third of all nonprofits and charitable groups survive their first five years. What’s more, many prospective volunteers grow weary after only a brief period of time. Most volunteer stints last little more than a year, a high rate of turnover that can be detrimental to nonprofits and charities already struggling to survive. That’s why it’s crucial that you find the right fit for your needs.

The Right Opportunity

Nobody wants to feel like their dedication to volunteer work is wasted time. Just because an opportunity comes along doesn’t mean it’s the right one, so before you choose what organization you’d like to work with, take time out and consider a few important factors.

Know Your Cause

Savvy jobseekers insist on learning about a company and its culture before joining its ranks, so the same policy should apply to volunteer gigs. Find out if others have had positive experience with your organization of choice or research the group’s reputation in the community. Try to find out how the group allocates its resources and where the donated funds are actually going. Websites such as Charity Navigator (www.charitynavigator.org) provide ratings, reviews and background information on various nonprofit organizations and charities to help you decide.

Commitment Time

Not all volunteering gigs have to be long-term commitments. If you’re tight on time or have a highly variable schedule, it may be best to focus on one shot or short term service opportunities.  Corporate days of service organized by your workplace, weekend projects overseen by groups like Habitat for Humanity or one time events like 5K runs or fundraiser galas for your favorite cause are all good examples. If you’d prefer to stick with one cause for the foreseeable future, be sure to set clear boundaries with your supervisor about your expectations and availability.

Group Dynamics

Before you make a commitment, spend time observing at the group’s headquarters or drop in on a board meeting to get a feel for the group dynamics. Is it a social atmosphere or one where people keep more to themselves? Does a typical work day have a more casual or more formal vibe? Can you sense a lot of tension between co-workers? If something doesn’t feel right, it may be best to walk away and avoid any unwanted emotional stress. You won’t do yourself any favors by working under extreme duress.

Sticking With It

If you’re still determined to commit, a positive outlook and active participation can prevent volunteer work from draining your energy. Charity work should never feel like a burden or you won’t be motivated to stick with it. Maintaining good relationships with your co-workers and balancing your schedule can help make the most of your volunteer time.

People Skills

One of the most important elements of any organization is good communication. Missed messages, disparate schedules and constant games of phone tag can break down the unity of the group. Working with your leadership team to implement consistent methods of information exchange helps to keep the machine well oiled and ensures that everyone is sticking to their required tasks so the organization doesn’t fall behind. With today’s tech tools such as email, text messaging and social networking sites, large group interaction is easier than ever before.

Despite good communication, entrenched cliques can still become a problem in volunteer groups. If you start to feel isolated, give the relationships time and space to develop organically. Things like this can take time, so have patience. You don’t want to try and force friendships as that may seem presumptuous and lead to greater conflict. If you have the ear of a sympathetic leader, voice your concerns. Indicate that the group’s success hinges on its ability to make new members feel at home and offer to brainstorm welcoming strategies or group building activities.

Time Management

As time goes on, you may not be surprised to find your couple of charity hours each week quickly snowballing into a part time or even a full time job.  If you’re feeling overwhelmed, make it clear to the group’s leadership and your fellow volunteers that you can’t keep up with this level of commitment. There’s no need to scramble for an excuse; just politely but firmly explain that you have other obligations competing for your time. Offer a weekly or monthly schedule of availability and let the group know that you won’t be able to work more than this.

The Last Word

After giving it a fair shake, if things still aren’t working out with scheduling or co-workers, it may be time to move on. Resist the urge to go out in a blaze of righteous indignation, pointing out every pet peeve that forced you to quit. However, if a group leader wants to schedule an exit interview a few weeks after your last shift, try to turn it into a positive experience and offer constructive suggestions for improvement. When in doubt, keep your true feelings to yourself and just say that your busy schedule is forcing you to phase out volunteering for the time being.

When everything falls into place, volunteering can be a constructive, meaningful and potentially life changing experience. But as with all things, you’ll get out of it what you put into it, which is why it’s best to enter into any form of charitable work with open eyes and realistic expectations. By thinking about your own goals, needs and limits beforehand and setting a few ground rules with your leadership team from the outset, you’re sure to find a positive outlet for your altruism.

New Vistas in Volunteering

If traditional volunteering isn’t your thing, there are still plenty of ways you can pitch in. Explore some of these up-and-coming trends in service and charity to see if one suits your needs.

Combine your vacation with a service project and use your holiday to teach English in a foreign country or spruce up an orphanage stateside. Find opportunities at www.globalvolunteers.org or www.habitat.org.

Virtual Volunteering
Help struggling nonprofits from the comfort of your own home by pitching in with writing, editing, consulting and more. Visit www.onlinevolunteering.org or www.volunteermatch.org for more info.

For the busiest of bees (or those of us with commitment issues), micro-volunteering lets you help out during bits of spare time. Check out www.helpfromhome.org or www.sparked.com for details.

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