Why Do We Volunteer?

May 5, 2011

I think about volunteering a lot. I have volunteered since middle school. I was always involved in community events. In the past, I have served as President of my local Kiwanis club and struggled to get others to chip in and serve. I’ve been employed by an association where my job was working with volunteers and I been active in a handful of associations as a volunteer. One thing that I have noticed is that while it can be rewarding, it can be very frustrating. Jeff Hurt, in a recent blog post, shed some light on this. Expectations for volunteers are not always clear and many times volunteers themselves don’t know why they are there.

In a recent Twitter discussion on #Leadershipchat, I asked how leadership and volunteerism correlate. Are people who volunteer leaders? Can you be a leader without volunteering for something? If we volunteer in business organization or associations, there is usually some personal gain. We either gain exposure, potential business opportunities, or education. The same could be said if we serve on a board of a charity. When we volunteer, we gain something, but many times, we benefit others as well. Should there be a formula for this? Should it be 50% gain/50% give? Leaders, what do you say?

In the last few years, I have spent much of my volunteer time giving to associations or the business community and not to charity. Because I am a believer in supporting charity, I have been making financial contributions instead of giving time (Feeding America is the main charity that I support). Now, as I sit back and reflect on some of the conversations that have been had over the last few weeks, I’ve been rethinking the role of volunteerism, at least in my life. Perhaps my observations can help you out too.

Here are my thoughts:

1. To volunteer in an organization, you have to have passion for their mission and understand why you are there. You have to measure and evaluate both the personal and professional gain so that you can make a true and dedicated commitment.

2. Volunteers and the organizations must clearly communicate what they expect from each other. Organizations/Associations need to identify what jobs need to be done so that they can find the right people to fill them.

3. It’s important to give back to the community without professional gain. This means finding balance between serving on associations committees and finding charities to support.

4. If you volunteer on the PTA or for your kids soccer team, this doesn’t count. This is just good parenting. However, organizing a town-wide spelling bee to support literacy for all kids, is a great example of helping the community. My friend Graham did this last weekend (his daughter participated, but was not eligible to win).

5. Good leaders set an example for others by volunteering.

6. Volunteering doesn’t have to be formal. Helping a sick neighbor grocery shop counts, at least in my book.

7. Financial contributions are great and very much needed. However, they don’t take the place of the time that it takes to make things happen. If you can afford to give money, do so. But also find out how you can help an organization with your time and skill set.

What are your thoughts on being a volunteer? How can we make our time count more? Associations and charities, what do you need for your volunteers that you haven’t asked them for?