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First Principles of Volunteering

Kevin Johnson is the National Gifted and Talented Program Coordinator for American Mensa, Ltd.

Mensa Bulletin, Jan. 2003

How do you make your life as a volunteer manageable and in balance with your personal and professional life? I won't pretend that I have it all figured out, but I have managed to come up with some guiding principles that help me steer my course as a volunteer, and I thought I would share them with you.

1) Do what you want to do. The choice to volunteer should be governed not by duty, but by desire. If you find yourself thinking that you 'should' volunteer to do this or that, think twice. Volunteerism comes from the heart's abundance. It comes from a natural desire to be of assistance and to put any extra resources we have to good use. When duty, not desire, runs your volunteering, you will feel drained and embittered, and no thanks will ever be enough. When your volunteering comes straight from the heart, you will feel a pleasant sense of satisfaction that makes it easy for you to look forward to the day when you may give again.

2) Do what you are good at or what you want to learn. When our volunteer efforts lead us to exercise talents that we enjoy using, or when it helps us to learn new skills that we have always wanted to master, a natural sense of pride and accomplishment follows. But when, with the little time that we have to give, we find ourselves working on tasks that our aptitudes are not suited for, it can become a recipe for frustration.

3) Never try to rescue anyone. Volunteering in order to rescue an organization, population, or project rarely results in a satisfying experience. If anyone tells you that only you could do the job right, or if you find yourself telling yourself that, you'd better not listen. No situation is so desperate, and no circumstances are ever so vital that the world will crumble if you do not hold it up. It is a valuable lesson to learn to say no and to brave the possible disappointment others might feel as a result. Saying yes to something that you do not want to do, for any reason, will generally lead to disappointment on both sides. By saying no, you save yourself and the organization from a situation that might have created bad blood.

4) Volunteer strategically. There are enormous initiatives we can undertake. Some of them are much more labor-intensive than others, and some of them will prove to be much more fruitful. If at all possible, try to find those projects that entail the least effort and the greatest potential benefit. There is a limit to how hard we can work as volunteers. Work smarter, not harder.

5) Ramp up slowly. It may be too late for some of us to do this, but the best way to volunteer is to start very small and increase the amount of volunteering we do by increments. You know you have reached your optimal level when you feel that your work as a volunteer is meaningful and significant but doesn't disrupt any of your important life balances. You know that you have gone too far when you find that you feel depleted, resentful, angry, or frustratedabout your work as a volunteer. If you start to notice any of these feelings, it may be time to reevaluate how much you're giving.

6) Handing on the torch. If you've followed all of these principles, you should be able to sustain your volunteerism for a long time. You're working on projects that are important and meaningful to you, you're practicing and learning new skills that you enjoy using, you've planned your efforts for greatest effect, and your volunteerism doesn't throw off your life balance. Even so, it may come time for you to hand off your volunteer efforts to someone else. Naturally, you'll want to find a successor, train that person, and be available to him or her for counsel as needed. Make sure you plan for the time it will take to transition. Knowing you've left things in good hands will help to preserve the satisfaction you felt during your time.

7) Be frank. Well, I just painted a very pretty picture of all this, but as many of us know, it doesn't always work like this. Volunteerism can turn into a monster that we created, gobbling up our time and energy, and sometimes not even giving us the satisfaction of knowing we've made a difference. What do we do when we find ourselves in trouble with our own good intentions? Direct, frank communication with those who have come to rely on us is the first step. Explain to them that you may have promised more than you can deliver. Based on their feedback, you may be able to come to a new agreement, more scaled down, that meets your needs. The worst possible choice is to try to keep up appearances when it has become obvious that something needs to change. Most people who work with volunteers have learned to deal with these kinds of situations many times. You may find the conversation goes easier than you thought.

With these seven principles in mind, you should be able to find a way of volunteering that really works for you.