Volunteering has always been a part of my life. I watched my parents take leadership roles in community organizations or fill in the gaps at certain events. Some of the best life lessons I learned came from watching the adults around me volunteer. Volunteers truly put the extra on ordinary. Winston Churchill said, “We make a living by what we do, but we make a life by what we give.” I truly believe to give is to get.
But just volunteering for any ole’ cause does not earn an individual a halo. A mediocre volunteer can actually hinder the success of an event or cause, making more work for other volunteers. Having experienced different volunteer opportunities from event coordinator to ‘worker bee’ and spending several years on various boards, I feel somewhat qualified to offer a few tips to becoming a better volunteer.
1) Say yes. Say no. Say something!
The number one reason people do not volunteer is because they are not asked. But, on the flip side, people don’t ask because they don’t want to put another person out. This is one of my faults. When I send out a request for help for an event and receive no immediate response, I cringe at the thought of sending another request. I hate begging and certainly do not want anyone to feel like he/she has to help. However, when I receive a response immediately, even if it is a ‘no’; at least I know someone got the email.
One mother who has attended just a few parent/teacher events and meetings at school, always responds to my meeting reminders or calls for help. Even if she can’t come, she’ll reply with, “Sorry. Busy tonight.” It is better than no response at all.
2) Use your strengths.
When you do say yes, make the most of the opportunity. If you are money-minded, volunteer to run a registration table or serve as the organization’s treasurer for a term. If you like working in the background, pitch in behind the scenes and work on event logistics. Love people? Grab the 50/50 tickets. Good at graphic design? Creative? Organized? Comfortable with public relations? Pick your place and offer to use your talent to ensure success.
3) Be happy.
Not looking forward to the first shift of the pancake breakfast? Dreading the morning chill of the registration table at the 5K? No one likes a sour face, so suck it up buttercup. Your smile just might make the difference in the day. Besides, hanging out with people who are united around one cause will do wonders for your mood and your attitude.
4) Share your thoughts.
When an event organizer asks for advice or suggestions for improvement, answer with something. If you weren’t a part of the main committee, you have a valuable viewpoint of the event. Looking at something a few steps back may help identify important points of improvement. Don’t keep those to yourself. Share, and feel good about helping a good thing get even better.
5) Back your words with action.
Nothing grates on my nerves more than hearing all the ways a volunteer group could do better from a person who has never lifted a finger to help. If you have a critique, a new idea, a suggestion for another event or fundraiser, be prepared to back up your thoughts with an offer to help. Some great ideas are shelved because the current volunteer group can’t manage one. more. thing. But, if you show up with a great idea and offer to make it happen, you might find a team at the ready with resources and time to see your idea through.
6) Pick your cause.
Volunteer for a cause that means something to you. If you are passionate about animals, check out your local animal shelter. Love working with kids? Youth centers, 4-H, FFA Alumni, library programs . . . all are looking for a few good folks.
Although, I played sports growing up, a baseball game doesn’t make me jump off the couch. When summer baseball organizers are begging for team coaches, I offer help with snack schedules, carpooling or general support instead. No coaching here. It doesn’t excite me and that poor attitude would translate to poor volunteering.
7) Know when your time is up.
There is a morbid joke amongst those of us who serve on our county fair board of directors. Once a member, always a member. Until death do us part. Unfortunately, that is the case for too many organizations. While consistency in leadership and membership can ensure a solid organizational foundation, it also might stifle change. We get stuck in doing things because it’s always been done that way. New members may be intimidated by veteran members and unwilling to share their ideas.
Sometimes, the best thing for an organization or cause you love so much is to step away, allowing new members to create new opportunity. Put in your time. Serve well. Know when to pass the reigns.
8) It is okay to say no.
Repeat after me, “It is okay to say no.” (My Farmer read this and said, “Are you taking your own advice?”)
There is only so much time in a day; we only have two hands, two feet and enough brain power for so much thinking. Don’t over commit. No one benefits. Not the organization to which you said, ‘yes’. Not your family or your friends or your other volunteer obligations.
If you do say ‘yes’ to one too many things, admit it. Letting a coordinator know you can’t complete a task is better than forcing him/her to pick up the pieces at the last minute.
9) Respect a person’s time.
Time is precious to us all. Respect that. If you are coordinating an event then pay attention to details. People offered to help, not stand around and watch you scramble. Clear expectations equal positive results. Volunteers feel good, you feel good and the cause is supported. AND they’ll say yes the next time you call.
10) Say thank you.
Volunteers do not expect to walk away from an opportunity with a ‘thing’. Folks don’t park cars at a town festival for a free of ear of sweet corn or a window cling for their car. People volunteer because it feels good. It connects one to the other. It forms community. But all that goodness will only stick if volunteers feel appreciated. Say thank you.