Turning Mountains into Mole Hills
Volunteer Spot · August 1, 2011 · Link
by Rabbi Will Berkovitz
“I want to volunteer,” the caller told a colleague at a local social service agency.
“Great,” she said, “there is a elderly woman who returns from the hospital every Monday afternoon and she feels really down and weak from her treatment. She was just asking if someone could stop by.”
After a pause, the caller said, “Mondays are no good from me. I have a tennis lesson.”
“Ok. Well, we could really use some help in the food bank on Tuesday, Wednesday or Friday mornings,” my colleague replied.
Again a pause. “That won’t work for me either. I am free from 2pm to 3pm the next two Thursdays. And then the following Wednesday from 4pm to 5pm. I’m not sure of my schedule after that. Do you have anything at those times?”
Exaggerated or not, I have heard similar stories from many professionals working in social service agencies. Well-meaning people want to volunteer, but they often don’t realize how much strain volunteers can add to an organization.
How can you feel great about volunteering and make sure that you aren’t causing extra strain on a nonprofit?
- Before even reaching out to an organization, reflect on how much time and what kind of commitment you can realistically make. We often look at our schedules a couple months out and see an ocean of extra time. But when we look back at the past month, we’ll often find that we barely had the time to brush our teeth. Use your availability in the past as a predictor of your free time in the future.
- Do some research and have some conversations. Whether you want to volunteer as an individual, you are organizing a group of volunteers or you want to lead a donation drive, have a conversation—or several–early on with the agency you want to work with to find out their needs. Then, see if you have the skills to match those needs.
- Start from a place of humility. Don’t try to negotiate your way out of their training or set conditions on your service. While it can be challenging to arrange your schedule to make a regular commitment of service hours, the benefit is often much greater to the organization and more satisfying for the volunteer.
- Remember, you are there to help, and ideally learn. By learning about the needs of the agency with which you hope to work, you can greatly increase the odds of supporting real work without making more work for often-overtaxed professional staff. Early conversations allow you to develop an understanding about what efforts are underway that you might be able to plug into. It is also an opportunity to share any specific skills you may have. For example, if you are a CPA or a web developer you may be most useful helping in the office and not the serving line.
After the tsunami in Southeast Asia, I was told that among the highest points in one village was the mountain of molding blankets collected and shipped over – probably at great expense. The intention was beautiful and well-meaning, but the problem was they didn’t need warm blankets. They are in the Tropics. They needed a molehill of blankets, not a mountain of them.
Like all successful relationships, you have to listen, be willing to put in the time and make the effort for them to be fulfilling. And nothing is more satisfying than feeling your skills and talents are helping address the world’s greatest needs or relieving even one person’s loneliness.