Ahhh, September. The month when summer’s lazy days are over, the kids return to school… and parents get bombarded by a sudden influx of volunteer requests. If you want to help out in your local school or community but feel daunted and stressed by the prospect, you’re not alone. However, by planning how you’ll manage the time you commit to good causes, you can make the most of your experience even before you receive those requests.
It’s always been a fact that in any organization, a small percentage of volunteers do most of the work. There is a chronic shortage of volunteers simply because people feel that their career and family time is so stretched they can’t give any more, so volunteering is not worth considering. The good news is that organizations realize this is the case and they are more willing than ever to help their volunteers balance volunteering with their other priorities. There is a great incentive for organizations to retain their volunteers, but the volunteer must also take some responsibility for their experience.
Family first. When you consider volunteering, take a look at your family’s schedule and decide how much time you can spare. Make sure your family is okay with the amount of time you are planning to devote to your chosen cause. It’s a good idea to set some boundaries and make a rule that your volunteer time will not overlap mealtime, bedtime and other important family time.
You’re allowed to say no. Just because you are asked to do something, you don’t have to agree to it. As the requests come in, take your time to decide what opportunities you really want to get involved with. Say yes to something only if you want to do it, not because you feel obligated to. If you have a passion for a particular cause or role, you’ll feel more engaged and passionate with it. If your volunteer role gets tough, as they sometimes do, that passion will see you through the difficult time and help you carry on.
What is volunteering supposed to look like, anyway? People often have an idea in their heads about what volunteers are supposed to do or what their mission is supposed to look like. It doesn’t have to be the most glamorous role in a high profile organization. Karen Franco of Volunteer Calgary says that episodic volunteering (helping out for a single event) or short-term volunteering is an excellent, no-pressure way to ease into volunteering if you haven’t done it before or can’t commit a lot of time. Remember that any time you do give will be appreciated. Even ‘behind the scenes volunteering’ - helping out with quiet, non-glamorous roles - allows you to see the results of your efforts and also gives you the chance to step back, re-evaluate the experience and then re-engage when you’re ready.
Make it a family affair. You don’t have to separate your volunteer time from your family time! The biggest trend that Volunteer Canada is noticing is family volunteering, where the entire family volunteers together at a cause they enjoy as part of their leisure time. Families get a chance to spend quality time with one another, children learn about the wider world and everyone gains valuable life skills while having fun.
Just don’t go there. If you find yourself losing enthusiasm for your volunteering, getting cranky with others and even making excuses for not going, those are warning signs which you should not ignore. Before you get to a place of severe stress, over-commitment and burnout, listen to that voice in your head when it’s telling you that volunteering is not working anymore. The worst thing that overstretched volunteers can do is to ignore these feelings and just carry on regardless - or even overcompensate by adding more activities to an already packed schedule. Be honest with those who you’re volunteering for and don’t beat yourself up if you have to drop or change a commitment. If you’re continually exhausted and overstretched, you will have nothing left to give to those closest to you and what should be energizing activities will only leave you drained and resentful.
If you want to volunteer but don’t know where to begin, start by looking locally. Churches, schools, hospitals or community associations all welcome volunteers. If you want to help out a particular charity, then search for contact details of their local branches. Another excellent resource is Volunteer Calgary. Find them at www.volunteercalgary.ab.ca, www.facebook.com/volunteercalgary or www.twitter.com/volunteercal.
In addition to Volunteer Calgary, here are a couple more organizations that would love to hear from you:
Role Mothers - A mom-powered resource to help families weave the spirit of giving into their daily lives to create future generations of philanthropic Calgarians. For more information, visit www.rolemothers.ca or www.facebook.com/rolemothers.
Koodonation - Canada’s First Online Microvolunteering Community. Its single mission: To connect Canadians who want to help their community but are too busy to volunteer in person or for long periods of time. For more information, visit www.koodonation.com.
This autumn, I hope you consider contributing even a small amount of time to a cause or organization you believe in. You will make a tangible difference, and you will learn so much about yourself in the process.
Carla is a Calgary freelance writer who volunteers at her son’s school and her community association. It has become part of her social life, and she has met so many wonderful people as a result.
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