"The vistas of possibility are limited only by the shortness of life." Sir Winston Churchill|
First Principles of Volunteering
2003 Kevin Johnson
How do you make your life as a volunteer manageable and in balance with
your personal and professional life? I won't pretend that I have it all
figured out, but I have managed to come up with some guiding principles
that help me steer my course as a volunteer, and I thought I would share
them with you.
- Do what you want to do.
The choice to volunteer should be
governed not by duty, but by desire. If you find yourself thinking that
you "should" volunteer to do this or that, think twice. Volunteerism
comes from the heart's abundance. It comes from a natural desire to be
of assistance and to put any extra resources we have to good use. When
duty, not desire, runs your volunteering, you will feel drained and
embittered, and no thanks will ever be enough. When your volunteering
comes straight frm the yeart, you will feel a pleasant sense of
satisfaction that makes it easy for you to look forward to the day when
you may give again.
- Do what you are good at or what you want to learn.
our volunteer efforts lead us to exercise talents that we enjoy using,
or when it helps us to learn new skills that we have always wanted to
master, a natural sense of price and accomplishment follows. But when,
with the little time that we have to give, we find ourselves working on
tasks that our aptitudes are not suited for, it can become a recipe for
- Never try to rescue anyone.
Volunteering in order to
rescue an organization, population, or project rarely results in a
satisfying experience. If anyone tells you that only you could do the
job right, or if you find yourself telling yourself that, you'd better
not listen. No situation is so desperate, and no circumstances are ever
so vital that the world will crumble if you do not hold it up. It is a
valuable lesson to learn to say no and to brave the possible
disappointment others might feel as a result. Saying yes to something
that you do not want to do, for any reason, will generally lead to
disappointment on both sides. By saying no, you save yourself and the
organization from a situation that might have created bad blood.
- Volunteer strategically.
There are enormous initiatives we
can undertake. Some of them are much more labor-intensive than others,
and some of them will prove to be much more fruitful. If at all
possible, try to find those projects that entail the least effort and
the greatest potential benefit. There is a limit to how hard we can work
as volunteers. Work smarter, not harder.
- Ramp up slowly.
It may be too late for some of us to do
this, but the best way to volunteer is to start very small and increase
the amount of volunteering we do by increments. You know you have
reached your optimal level when you feel that your work as a volunteer
is meaningful and significant but doesn't disrupt any of your important
life balances. You know you have gone too far when you find that you
feel depleted, resentful, angry, or frustrated about your work as a
volunteer. If you start to notice any of these felings, it maybe time to
reevaluate how much you're giving.
- Hand on the torch.
If you've vollowed all of these
principles, you should be able to sustain your volunteerism for a long
time. You're working on projects that are important and meaningful to
you, you're practicing and learning new skills that you enjoy using,
you've planned your efforts for greatest effect, and your volunteerism
doesn't throw off your life balance. Even so, it may come time for you
to hand off your volunteer efforts to someone else. Naturally, you'll
want to find a successor, train that person, and be available to him or
her for counsel as needed. Make sure you plan for the time it will take
to transition. Knowing you've left things in good hands will help to
preserve the satisfaction you felt during your time.
- Be frank.
Well, I just painted a very pretty picture of
all this, but as many of us know, it doesn't always work like this.
Volunteerism can turn into a monster that we created, gobbling up our
time and energy, and sometimes not even giving us the satisfaction of
knowing we've made a difference. What do we do when we find ourselves in
trouble with our own good intentions? Direct, frank communication with
those who have come to rely on us is the first step. Explain to them
that you may have promised more than you can deliver. Based on their
feedback, you may be able to come to a new agreement, more scaled down,
that meets your needs. The worst possible choice is to try to keep up
appearances when it has become obvious that something needs to change.
Most people who work with volunteers have learned to deal with these
kinds of situations many times. You may find the conversation goes
easier than you thought.
With these seven principles in mind, you should be able to find a way
of volunteering that really works for you.
Reprinted from the Mensa Bulletin January 2003 with permission from the Bulletin and Kevin Johnson.
Kevin Johnson is the National Gifted and Talented Program
Coordinator for American Mensa, Ltd. He can be contacted at