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How to avoid volunteerism pitfalls
Old 08-30-2014, 10:46 AM   #1
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How to avoid volunteerism pitfalls

Earlier in my career, I considered working for a nonprofit that focused on one of my passions, but the pay was abysmal and the workload unhealthy. I now think I dodged a bullet -- I wouldn't have been able to retire early if I had accepted that job offer.

I've also served on several nonprofit boards and have found them, for the most part, unfulfilling. Often, you're expected to fundraise (not enjoyable to me) or contribute considerable money (not possible for me). Therefore, I thought I'd do more frontline volunteering in retirement, but I'm told the tasks are likely to be mundane and unchallenging.

I'd be curious to know if others have discovered a way to avoid the above pitfalls.
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Old 08-30-2014, 11:30 AM   #2
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I agree with your observations. One strategy would be to offer your skills as a consultant, assuming the skill sets match. For example, you might offer to prepare a business plan, with a limit of X hours for the project. I was approached to volunteer to develop a curriculum and teach a workshop. I agreed with the proviso that it would not take more than 40 hours of my time. I kept a time log, which I shared with the organization at intervals during the project.
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Old 08-30-2014, 12:00 PM   #3
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What's mundane or worse for some may not be for you. I volunteer for the local nature foundation and Appalachian Trail club. A lot of what I do is trail maintenance. Many don't want to weed whack a mile or trail, or hike with a pick mattock to clear water bars. I don't mind it at all, and take pride in keeping my sections of trails in shape. I also lead a 2 hour hike about once a month. They tried to get me on the membership committee and I went to one meeting, and told them it wasn't for me. They have other people doing jobs I don't want, like manning the front desk or doing plant re-potting and sales. I would ask specifically what kind of work they'd like you to do and see what strikes your interest, if anything.

I think the key is to find a place you are interested in first. I'm not really an art fan, so I can't imagine there's any work in an art museum that would hold my interest. But I've restocked the shelves in a library because I love books and libraries.
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Old 08-30-2014, 12:03 PM   #4
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I would also agree that being on the front line is more interesting than being on a board, for me. If you see yourself as more of a visionary or direction setter, or like rubbing elbows with higher profile people, the opposite would probably be true, though I think some get frustrated when they hit resistance to their ideas, due to money issues, or just lack of motivation of the staff to do something different or extra.
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Old 08-30-2014, 12:39 PM   #5
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So far I've gotten involved in working in the produce garden my church maintains to supply a local soup kitchen (similar to Appalachian trail work, mindless and never-ending, but I enjoy the work, the company and the cause. I'm also on the church vestry (governing board) but I like the group and the times we have to bug people for money are limited to about one month a year (I still hate that part). We also had to choose a new pastor from 3 recommended by a Search Committee. That was a lot of meetings and interviews finished off by a 4+-hour evening meeting that we joked felt like a conclave. Finally, I'm on a committee helping a friend walk through the process of discerning whether she's got a call to the priesthood. All of this work uses a lot of the skills I developed in business (well, except the garden and I've probably dealt with my fair share of grunt work and manure in the office).

I joined a Toastmasters Club because I love an audience and love helping other people sharpen their presentation skills. I turned down the District Treasurer position- did it once before and it nearly killed me- I felt like all I was doing was crapwork to keep the bureaucracy in HQ happy.

Some areas have "help wanted" boards on the Web so local nonprofits can post requests for volunteers. You can start with a short-term commitment and see if you like the people and the work. You can always set your own boundaries- if a position requires that you ask people for money, tell them you don't want that position. I've never run into a position where I felt I had to contribute a large amount although it may be true of the arts, such as operas and orchestras. The reverse has happened- I was asked to join the board of a women's shelter to which we'd contributed generously. I said no because I figured they WOULD expect more money as well as participation in fund-raising.
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Old 08-30-2014, 01:10 PM   #6
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I partner with a friend (who is the official volunteer) to walk dogs for a no-kill shelter a few hours once a month. She gets stuck selling raffle tickets, some of which I purchase from her. I donate dog and cat food or blankets and towels when I show up for my side-kick stint. She doesn't have to be alone at the facility, and I don't have to formally join.

Eventually I want to do more in the way of volunteerism. Meals-on-Wheels is one of the strong contenders for my time.

I have also let it be known to a few friends with health problems that I am available as a driver to appointments or for errands or shopping if needed. There is a local organization that does something like this using volunteers, but I would be wary of getting involved with strangers both from a liability standpoint and also the knowledge gleaned from many years in social services that there are some remarkably difficult people out there with all kinds of issues.
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Old 08-30-2014, 01:49 PM   #7
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I'd be curious to know if others have discovered a way to avoid the above pitfalls.
You might check out Meetup.com if you live in/near a population center. There are all kinds of groups, and some meet just to do a single community project ("Let's meet up and pick up trash along the Miami River," etc). That appeals to me: No big power struggles or politics, no expectations from others that I'll sacrifice my flexibility to attend regular meetings, etc. Just show up, pitch in, meet some people, and look for the next opportunity.
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Old 08-30-2014, 02:28 PM   #8
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I live in a large over-55 golf course community in central Florida. We have a wonderful community library and I volunteer a couple hours every two weeks on a regular schedule.
I always look forward to it. It's been a great way to meet many of our residents, and I get to see what new books, DVD's and audio books have been added.

I also provide pet-sitting services within our community. I always offer to do it for free, but most people insist on giving me a few dollars.

I really enjoy both of these opportunities with very little to zero stress.
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Old 08-30-2014, 02:34 PM   #9
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Check out this for opportunities in your area....

Volunteer.gov Home Page
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Old 08-30-2014, 04:06 PM   #10
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There are so many options for volunteering. Just focus on areas you are interested in.

I volunteer with a group that meets once a month and we knit and crochet baby items for a local hospital nursery and a health service focusing on the migrant population. It's fun and there is usually someone who can help if you are stuck on a pattern.
Another volunteer activity I am involved in is growing food for a local emergency food bank. I have a couple of gardening partners and we garden at two community gardens. Last year we donated over 1,000 pounds of fresh produce to the food bank. When I make the deliveries I encounter many other volunteers who pick up food from local stores and bring to the food bank on a regular basis. Together we can make a difference and it does take a village.
I am getting involved in a local village under development. The focus is aging in place and I expect to be a volunteer with the group.
Someday I would like to volunteer with a local recycling business that builds computers from recycled components and then provides them to non-profits. I haven't started this yet, but it's on my radar.
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Old 08-30-2014, 04:31 PM   #11
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If you are worried about your volunteer work being mundane or unchallenging, pick an organization whose work truly interests you and be picky about what you volunteer to do. I will say that many organizations will want you to demonstrate your interest in their mission in some way before you get to create your own volunteer project, but others will be more open.

Personally, I do a lot of volunteering that is interesting and challenging and uses skills I developed during my career, including serving on a very strong board. But I also enjoy the "mundane" 90 minutes I spend every month scooping veggies or dessert onto plates for a dinner served to the homeless - variety is the spice of life.
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Old 08-30-2014, 07:50 PM   #12
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Originally Posted by wishin&hopin View Post
I've also served on several nonprofit boards and have found them, for the most part, unfulfilling. Often, you're expected to fundraise (not enjoyable to me) or contribute considerable money (not possible for me). Therefore, I thought I'd do more frontline volunteering in retirement, but I'm told the tasks are likely to be mundane and unchallenging.
I've served on the boards of both for-profits and non-profits, and the drawbacks outweigh the advantages.

I've found that self-directed volunteerism is much more fulfilling, with fewer schedules & deadlines. I enjoy the writing and I donate the royalties where I think they'll do the most good.

I hear you on frontline volunteering. I enjoy watching AccesSurf light up the faces of the people who they put on the boards, but I've also noticed the volunteers unloading the truck at 5 AM for a 9 AM start time. Presumably breaking down is the same ordeal.

That's an awful lot of labor for a couple hours of wearing an "INSTRUCTOR" rashguard, but I enjoy teaching friends how to surf. So a few times a year I teach friends how to surf instead of having to unload a truck on the first Saturday of every month.
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Old 08-30-2014, 08:28 PM   #13
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....I have also let it be known to a few friends with health problems that I am available as a driver to appointments or for errands or shopping if needed.......
Sometimes it it that kind of volunteerism which can be the most useful, and the most appreciated. Many in need refuse help because they are uncomfortable accepting any assistance from formal organizations...or from strangers.
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Old 08-30-2014, 08:39 PM   #14
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I volunteer about 300 hours a year for VITA and maybe 40 hours a year or so for my HOA. Knowing how to say "no" will eliminate most pitfalls. You can only be taken advantage of if you allow it.
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Old 08-30-2014, 08:49 PM   #15
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You might check out Meetup.com if you live in/near a population center. There are all kinds of groups, and some meet just to do a single community project ("Let's meet up and pick up trash along the Miami River," etc). That appeals to me: No big power struggles or politics, no expectations from others that I'll sacrifice my flexibility to attend regular meetings, etc. Just show up, pitch in, meet some people, and look for the next opportunity.
Thanks for the lead. Oddly, although I live in a large city, very little popped up after a search.
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Old 08-30-2014, 08:51 PM   #16
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Check out this for opportunities in your area....

Volunteer.gov Home Page
Bureau of Land Management opportunities aren't my thing, but this might be helpful to others here.
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Old 08-30-2014, 08:56 PM   #17
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Bureau of Land Management opportunities aren't my thing, but this might be helpful to others here.
BLM is only one of the ten partners.
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Old 08-30-2014, 09:05 PM   #18
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BLM is only one of the ten partners.
Right you are. I should have more accurately noted that it focuses on "volunteer opportunities related initially to natural resources and veteranís health" (per the website).
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Old 08-31-2014, 01:27 AM   #19
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I'm currently in a period of not volunteering, as our home remodel is taking all my bandwidth. I'm looking forward to getting back to volunteering once the dust settles. I've volunteered for a number of organizations most of my life, including front lines, committees, and on the boards. The main way I find where to volunteer, is by attending an event or otherwise networking with folks of similar interests.

Another website that posts volunteer opportunities: VolunteerMatch - Where Volunteering Begins

Once you found an organization that aligns with your ideals or passions, then you'll have to find how your skills can be put to good use. While volunteering should contribute to your happiness, the real reason is to help with the organization's mission. If you're passionate about the cause, then whatever you do will probably feel less mundane.

I hear you on the fundraising concern, though. There are some boards where the push for board members to fund raise is overwhelming. You might avoid this by serving on a committee rather than the board. You might set expectations by clarifying what you will do. Or, if they just don't hear you, you might just look for another organization. Some of us, myself included, are just uncomfortable with fund raising. We all have different skills. Find a place that where you have a good fit. It's like dating -- you may have to try several before you find what's right for you.
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Old 08-31-2014, 02:32 AM   #20
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Reposting what I posted in another thread (the one this spun off from):

We managed to "volunteer" by just figuring out what we did that would be useful for a non-profit, and then offering those services. As opposed to signing on as a volunteer, and then doing whatever is assigned. A big part of this for us is giving back to the places that we enjoy so much.

So DH donates nature prints to national and state parks, always appreciated for their education outreach programs as well as showing off what they conserve. We lead some tours in annual nature festivals. We occasionally make graphic design contributions. We regularly post video and photographs of wildlife we encounter in any given park. It's all very much appreciated, and we do as much or as little as we want, with no major schedule commitments.

At this point our "credentials" are well known within our community, so we are drawn on by folks working in nature/wildlife conservation in our area when they need help documenting something important.

Neither DH nor I really feel the "need" for teamwork. Although we do often help out with little volunteer projects here or there that our friends are up to. Most of our post-retirement friends are heavily involved in nature/wildlife as well. That's how we became friends.....
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I like Nords term: self-directed volunteerism. I think that makes a huge difference. YOU figure out what you can offer, and the terms that you are willing to work under, and then you interact with the causes that are important to you. This can happen quite naturally as you get involved with the organizations and then see where you can contribute.
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