“Life’s most persistent and urgent question is: ‘What are you doing for others?’”
Last summer I decided to jump back into volunteering for my local NAPO chapter and take on the Vice President position (filling a vacancy for a colleague and friend Barb who moved on to other adventures). I’ve served on that board before, and I’ve helped in other leadership positions for NAPO, as an elder at my church (chairing various committees), managing my kids' Destination Imagination teams, and going back further, for other lots of professional and school organizations. I used to joke and say I must have that “Chapter Secretary” look about me because often that’s what I get asked to do (and I enjoy it). Some of you have probably been asked to step into a leadership or volunteer position, maybe for your profession, church, kids’ activities, or school. I’m often asked by clients to help them with getting a handle on things they volunteer for, like Girl Scouts or the travel soccer team. My ideal clients often have those “Sure, sign me up!” hearts for service, and that’s certainly something I like and admire about them.
Have you ever been volunteering in a collaborative effort, though, and one or two people sort of…don’t hold their weight? They drop balls, show up late to events, or forget to pick up supplies. It’s pretty frustrating, isn’t it? Or have you perhaps volunteered and suddenly become incredibly stressed out with the load? Are you the one missing meetings or forgetting to make calls?
Maybe it’s for entirely excellent reasons, like a major life interruption, illness, or the like. Things we don’t get paid to do are generally the first things to get cut when our wellbeing or livelihood is threatened (and hopefully, we can become the recipients of some volunteer grace ourselves). But sometimes our best intentions don’t always match up with what is realistic, or with our skills for managing time and follow-through. Our giving hearts can run ahead of our capabilities, but that doesn’t mean we can’t still be useful in sharing our gifts. While each position we might choose has varying responsibilities (President of the PTO does quite different things from the chair of a church worship committee), there are some common factors I think anyone should review to make sure they give their best to volunteering.
The first, but often most overlooked, is time management. Before you even raise your hand or plug your name in on the list, ask: What is the realistic time commitment for this job? How many hours a week or month do I have to share? If you have no idea what might be needed, ask someone already involved (and let it be someone who isn’t desperate to get out of the work themselves - you may not get the clearest answer). Be inquisitive, go to a training or interest meeting, and take a look at your life and calendar overall. Your altruistic desire to encourage voter registration or read to the elderly won’t pan out if you’re needed during your work hours. Keep in mind that many volunteer organizations need people who can do things from home in off hours, like sending emails, updating website information, or putting supplies together.
Speaking of supplies - this part can quickly get out of hand if you’re not careful. Example: for our DI teams, we need all kinds of quirky, crafty items for “instant challenges.” Everything from golf balls, to chenille sticks (pipe cleaners, for the uninitiated) to duct tape, and more. Sometimes we need huge pieces of cardboard or foam core, cans of paint, electrical equipment, and power tools. I was lucky enough to have a big closet where everything could be tucked away safely, if not always neatly. Scout troops and sports teams need tons of gear, too. Do you have space for everything that’s needed for your volunteer gig? How and where will you store everything? Is some of it temperature-sensitive, or have an expiration (like food items)? Be prepared to create some appropriate space, unless you’re comfortable giving up a lot of countertops or the floor.
Next up is record keeping - are you required to maintain lists of other volunteers, report to a board, review and curate key emails or other notes? If so, is that your strong suit? What has been the process for keeping track of things in the past? You may discover that there is no process, and you’re the one who’ll need to create it. Can you take a hodgepodge of written notes, documents stored in various formats (Word, Google, Evernote, or something else) and pull them together into something that actually supports the purpose of the organization? At the very least, you’ll want a notebook or something else to capture your own notes.
Finally, effective communication is critical. Do you tend to type up lengthy detailed emails? Well you should probably stop, because I’m here to tell you no one is reading them. Volunteers working with other volunteers should develop an awareness that because everyone is giving their time, getting to the point quickly is appreciated. Bullet points rule the world. If you happen to be in charge, keep meetings on track and at or under the time allowed. Something else I’ve discovered that makes a difference - if there’s a meeting scheduled and no agenda, don’t be afraid to reschedule to a time when things do need to be discussed.
Asking key questions like those above can make all the difference in your volunteer experience, both for you and for those you serve. If you haven’t found your perfect volunteer position fit, check out https://www.volunteermatch.org/, where you can search for jobs that fit your talents, interests, and availability. I’ll close with another great MLK quote, because I think it’s important to remember:
“If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way.”
Sara Skillen - I'm a Certified Professional Organizer®, coach, wife and mom, and serial list-maker. I'm excited to be in the process of becoming a Certified ADHD Organizer Coach. I love to help people from all walks of life get organized and productive - and I'd love to help you, too:
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