Thursday, October 01, 2009

giving it away for free

A rant on volunteering

There was a moment about seven years ago when I vowed I’d never go on a committee for my professional association ever again. I’d spent the past decade on and off groups, editing a newsletter, being vice-president of the organisation and a committee member. The problem was it was a small handful of us who’d been picking up the slack for years and now it was time to hand the reigns over to the next generation.

I was stunned when a then mid-twenties young professional, who’d sucked up our free support and advice over the past few years as she navigated her entry into a new career exclaimed, “Oh no, I can’t possibly go on the committee, I’m far too busy setting up my own business”.

As if, the old guard wasn’t far too busy working more hours than her in our successful endeavours?

I felt overwhelmed by her selfishness and lack of foresight in the role that the association played in helping nurture newbies like she had been. I saw a change in our profession, from a vocation to a career. A sign of the times. I suspected it was generational.

But at that moment I thought, “If this is how it is now, I don’t want to be a part of it any more”.

So I stopped putting up my hand and in the end stopped going to the meetings altogether.

I’ve always volunteered in some capacity. From collecting for the blind and various charities in their doorknock campaigns in my childhood, to years spent as a telephone counsellor. I’ve spent hundreds of hours sitting on committees helping to put the world to rights, manned desks at open days and done whatever has been asked of me.

I have been volunteering in another capacity for the past 17 years but as I get so much joy from what I do once or twice a month, it really stretches the definition a little and in reality it’s a cross between a hobby and part of my working life. The fact I don’t get paid directly is meaningless in the equation.

In the past year I have thought seriously about volunteering. I have up to half a day a week that could be spared and I’d happily share my time and skills with a non-profit organization. I have a diverse pool of experience and knowledge to draw on. Sure I could make cups of tea or stuff envelopes but I also have many years of admin and media work, research and writing as well as another area of very specialised, professional knowledge.

So last year when I thought about the exchange of time and skills for that “something else” you get from volunteering my first thought was exploring an area I wanted to learn more about. I have always been interested in philanthropy and I would like to find out how small but effective philanthropic organizations work. Previously I’d applied for and received grants for projects I’d worked on and I wondered what the process was like from the other side.

I decided to target the Foundation that interested me the most, I love their philosophy, respect their history and most of all admire the types of projects they support. The website had no information on volunteering so I rang the headquarters. The woman who took my call was a little taken aback. I got the feeling no one had ever rung to offer their time in such a way. She told me to send a CV and a cover letter, which I did straight away.

A week or two later I got a short reply. Like a standard job refusal letter, it didn’t give me a clue as to why they didn’t want me. Was it me, or did they have no structure for taking on unpaid help? To be honest, I was quite stunned at not just the refusal but also the lack of explanation.

I felt a huge pang of empathy for the long term unemployed. It’s one thing to be turned down for a job during an economic downturn but these guys weren’t interested in using a pair of hands and a brain for free.


Recently I had a similar but different experience. Offering tangible skills backed by demonstrable experience to an entirely different type of organization and been knocked back. The details are not important but the question remains, is it that hard to give your time away these days? To be honest, I’m not interested in doing outreach work for the homeless or many more incredibly noble things. I don’t want to volunteer with a community group for now; I’d like to learn more from well thought out foundations and the like. But not just anyone or anything.

Perhaps I have targeted these organizations a little too well – it turns out they are just as fussy and exacting as I am!

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

im afraid, having volunteered a bit here and there, that the attitude is "you get what you pay for"

vounteering is often suggested to the unemployed as a way to refresh or learn new skills, so organisations have to be prepared to put in time and resources for training.
anon, for obvious reasons:)

1:09 pm  
Blogger Another Outspoken Female said...

Yes anon but I am gainfully employed and have entirely different motives to volunteer.

So what are you saying?

1:27 pm  
Blogger Marshall-Stacks said...

oh dear - please feel the WAVES of empathy coming toward you from me.
I have done volunteer work. Above and beyond the call. Long term. and done it well for 3 years until a new paid person came into the quasi-local-government organisation. She was young and started ordering me about. "Dust these!" she said - without supplying a duster - well there had never been a duster in the place in the 3 yrs I had seen.
It was an outdoor place, and my role involved greeting visitors. I took my pedigreed miniature poodle with me. This new person objected to the harmless clean quiet doglet.
"I'll just per her in my car" I said.
and never went back.
Top levels of the organisation phoned and wrote and pleaded with me to return but I never said why I had flounced.
So anyhow, that's volunteering.

1:48 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

what im saying
is....err...volunteering's a funny old game.

i always get to the point where i thing "gees they should be paying me for this" which i know is not the point.

i think, speaking only for myself and my experience, you have to be some kind of star to get a volunteering gig you actually want to do:)
anon (again)

3:53 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

yeah marshall stacks, i have written a few blogposts on bolshie 20 to thirtysomething bosses who have to supervise older (ahem) staff. they need extensive supervision themselves it looks like:)

4:25 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i could write a book on jobs i have walked out on by just going to get something out of the car:):)

4:26 pm  
Blogger The Pugmother said...

Volunteerism takes everything from you and in the past it gave back just as much. Just like corporations non-profit organizations now seek those who cannot or will not think for themselves. Creates far too much work. People thinking for themselves are the leaders which threaten to overthrow you. Now non-profits are watching their asses just as much as everybody else.

2:30 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i really admire the lady who started the Ardoch foundation, she started it with nothing for a group of kids no one had any time for.

also on 4 corners the other week there was a lady in the Blue Mountains who decided to do something for the homeless in her area: she lobbied government for funds to provide permanent housing for families, one house at a time

7:12 am  
Blogger Marshall-Stacks said...

thanks Anon and PugMum for promoting those honourable women - Have they each received recognition from The Federation for their good citizenship?
If not, go to the office of your Fed Member and get the glossy white folder containing the AO nomination form. It's easy.
I succeeded in getting an AO for a person who deserved it, and that's all I did. Good luck.

9:14 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I worked for a not-for-profit that utilised volunteers very well. While my generous side saw that most volunteers have hearts of gold, my cynical side saw that the Exec types running the show had gold on their minds - volunteers save heaps of money. That's fine, except when you find out how much the Exec types are earning, watch them waste money on yet another junket either here or overseas, live in upmarket suburbs, and so on. Meanwhile, the volunteers get a pithy Christmas party every year. Something smelt bad about the whole exercise to me - though I always knew of the value of quiet volunteer work.

10:15 am  

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