"When you volunteer in your community, you get back far more than you put in."
"No matter what your skills are, you can use them to make a difference through volunteering."
"Volunteering will help you develop a resume and skills that will make it easier to find a job in tougher times."
"Volunteering is a great way to network and make new friends."
The statements above have two things in common. First, just about every volunteer organization has some combination of these sentiments on their website and in their literature.
The other thing they have in common is that I, Ty Unglebower, find every one of them to be a crock of shit.
Once you finish gasping at the thought I will continue.
Too XYZ is a blog about the experiences I have had. Not one-off experiences but trends that I have noticed in my travels. If your only comment is, "that's not true everywhere," please don't bother to comment. Nothing is true everywhere. Nevertheless I standby my thesis statement that traditional volunteering has trended toward being a crock for me. None of those four statements above has proven true for me yet, and I'm not the only one. This message board thread bears out my belief that it's a bit of an epidemic.
So, without naming names of the specific organizations involved, here is my list of eight reasons why volunteering isn't worth it.
1. Nobody gets back to you.
Not unlike 99% of hiring managers these days, the vast majority of volunteer coordinators do not bother returning the emails, phone calls or letters of interest that people send to them wanting to know more about their organization. Such places beg and grovel for volunteers constantly, even placing ads in newspapers and online boards calling for same. Yet when people want to know more about schedules, duties, opportunities, etc, nobody is moved to pick up a phone or click off an email. Many will claim that their offices are also staffed by volunteers and as such they get very busy and don't have time for such things. But really, if you can't find time to return inquiries from potential volunteers, what's the point? The office is the face of your organization and if it's cold to people, nobody will care about helping you.
"Every place has politics," know-it-alls like to say. While that is debatable, what is not debatable is that most people hate politics, whether in Washington, D.C. or in their offices at work. It may not be avoidable in those places, which is why people who take what little time they have out of their busy lives to volunteer want to avoid even more politics at all costs. The royal court structure of who's in and who's out that develops at volunteer organizations is appalling. Playing favorites, keeping secrets, gossip and intrigue. I want to help homeless people, not find a way to play the public relations officer against her arch enemy, the supply manager, so I can get the shift I want at the shelter next week.
3. Lack of appreciation
You might be amazed at how thankless volunteering can really be. I know there are those evolved souls who do work without any need to get anything back because it is the right thing to do. And I agree that volunteering is about helping someone or something else other than yourself. And when it comes to helping people in need, I agree. But that doesn't apply to the organizations for which you do the volunteering, who really should be thankful for the help they get.
Is the fact that you do noble work really an excuse to not say "thank you" to your volunteers? Or to make them feel guilty about not wanting to take on more responsibilities and longer hours? I have rarely been thanked for the volunteer hours I have given up, and have even been bitched at when I had to end them. Such places don't want volunteers, they want machines.
4. It's become too much like a job hunt.
One add in my county's volunteer message board ran like this, (I am altering it enough to hide their identity)
"The Jones Shelter for the Homeless is seeking kind-hearted volunteers to help register new clients into the system. Must be proficient in MS. Excel and other database software, have excellent phone skills, able to come in on weekends and keep a positive outlook. Previous clerical experience, preferably in a shelter environment is a major plus. Fluent Spanish is desirable. A bachelor's degree is strongly preferred,but not necessary. No phone calls please."
Sounds like a job post to me. Not only based on the amount of work required, but the rather high level of skills expected for a volunteer position. Nobody out of the kindness of their soul can walk in off the street and be trained for this position. And with so many people out of work choosing to turn to the volunteer sector to prevent "gaps" in their damn resumes, they are getting all of the volunteer positions too. It shouldn't be stiff competition to volunteer at a homeless shelter.
I don't volunteer to help those less fortunate so I can take part in a prayer meeting or a church service. And here is a newsflash; starving people generally come to a shelter to eat, not to be witnessed to. Of course not all shelters have a religious tone to them, but a great deal of the volunteer organizations that offer help to the indigent and destitute are in fact run by churches. Churches ought to separate missionary work from volunteer work, for the sake of people who desperately need a platform to help the needy, but don't wish to make it a religious experience, for themselves or the ones they are helping.
I once volunteered with a church at a soup kitchen run by the county. It clearly states on several signs that there is to be no religious witnessing to the clients, but the meal began with a prayer anyway, and that disgusted me. Don't make starving people listen to your blessing before they eat. Give them the food. I never went back.
6. New people get the shaft.
Similar to the politics complaint.
"Martha can't hear, can barely see, and needs a walker to get around these days. But she has been in charge of the kitchen on Thursday nights for 54 years now. You and your three professionally trained chef friends may be willing to offer your wonderful expertise for free as a way to make the kitchen run faster, cheaper, and serve more clients, thus saving us money, but here we do things Martha's way. You had better ask her about that."
And if you are new, and everybody else that has been around forever is doing everything, and you have nothing to do, nobody gives you anything to do, despite the call for volunteers. Or else all of the good jobs go to the more familiar people. And if you somehow do end up doing a job, and you do it a different way than the person that usually does it, somebody will actually UNDO what you have done and REDO it according to their own method because "we've always done it this way." I have seen people moved to near tears when they discover someone new has covered the cobbler with foil as opposed to the plastic wrap. Anything from a polite debate about "how Nancy does it" to an all out fight, complete with people quitting usually ensues.
In the mean time starving people are literally waiting even longer to be served because the way we cover the damn cobbler is of the utmost importance.
I hate it. I hate being asked for money, and I hate asking for it myself. I won't do it. Yet it seems anymore there are two types of volunteer positions left anywhere these days. Those that are fundraising positions, and those that are called something else but end up being fundraising positions.
I get that organizations always need money, but when will such places learn that shaking a can is a very specific skill that not everybody possesses? You cannot just take people who want to volunteer to help abused animals and turn them into an army of fundraisers. They didn't volunteer to raise money, (which is the same the world over.) They volunteered because they are good with animals. They have a gift for making them feel comfortable. But they are new, and those skills are not sought after today. (See numbers 4 and 6.) But we always need money, so we are always willing to take on more people to collect donations.
8. You are given more to do by the hour.
Somehow those that come in to stuff envelopes on Sunday afternoons end up being asked to makes copies, set up client contact lists, return a few phone calls in the morning, lock up the place when they leave, coordinate efforts with the shelter in the next county, and grab a gun to go hunting for the Thanksgiving Turkeys in the nearby woods.
And if they decline, they get, "I guess you don't care about helping out as much as we thought."
My hope is that you will take this list in the spirit in which it was given; and that is to point out the popular fallacy of how volunteering in it's own right is somehow more noble than other pursuits.
Note the "thus far" in the title of this entry. My hope is that one day I will find a volunteer organization that will fit my needs and desires, and vice-versa. Than perhaps I will feel uplifted by volunteering my time. But until then, I'm taking a break from looking.
Do you volunteer? Where? And have you ever experienced any of the problems on my list? How did you deal with same? Let me hear from you.