Our own heads often get in the way of offering our time and talents to needy organizations. This article will help guide you out of analysis paralysis and toward making the world a better place—and you a happier person for it.
By Sara G. Stephens
The instant you enter parenthood, the idea that “‘tis better to give than to receive” turns from accepted truism to personal reality. Parents give their all—time, talents, and treasure—to their children, because it feels good to do so. Giving of ourselves returns happiness many times over, and knowing this makes us want to give even more, outside of our families, to complete strangers and to causes we believe in. The urge strikes particularly strongly during the holidays, when we are feeling even more generous of spirit than usual. But the task of finding the right volunteer opportunity can be daunting. Unless we’re hit in the face with the perfectly tailored job that speaks to our abilities, passions, and schedules, most of us resign to a “maybe next year” mentality, then spend the next 12 months weighed down by a swelling rock of gut-based guilt.
The key to overcoming this volunteer anxiety and to having a successful and rewarding volunteer experience is simple: work your passion. Whether it’s the job you’re doing or the people you’re helping, the right volunteer opportunity compels you with powerful emotions to drink in every sip of Kool-Aid the job presents. Although this passion naturally arises from your interest in the cause, it can also be influenced for the better or for the worse by other variables you might not have considered.
Find Your Mission of Passion
Finding the perfect match of cause and volunteer used to be a strategy of hit-or-miss. Thankfully, these days, with the help of numerous online databases, you can easily match your interests with agencies in need of help.
One such resource, Volunteer Houston (www.volunteerhouston.org), offers a rich database of volunteer opportunities, including special one-time events that let you “test the waters.” The organization also offers ideas for youth and families, resources for educators, and help for corporate services. Called the Volunteer Connection, this tool lets you search for opportunities that are close to home or work, that serve a special cause or that are available on a certain date. The keyword search presents agencies or opportunities with that word in the title. A zip code search helps you find opportunities in a certain area. Using the “advanced search” you can narrow the search by cause, clients served, or by age of volunteers. The site even lets you register so you can save favorite searches or sign up for notifications about projects or events. If you’re in a hurry, a click on the “what’s new” button briefs you on all the latest opportunities.
Put Time on Your Side
Time is a challenge when it comes to volunteering, and it’s a good idea to make it an upfront issue, according to Walter Black, recruitment director for Volunteer Houston. Most people are not particularly savvy when it comes to understanding the time commitment factor of volunteering, and it’s a variable that can easily interfere with a successful experience. “If a non-profit talks to me and asks for a $20 donation to its cause, I know how much money I have in my wallet, and I either give it or I don’t,” Black says. If that same non-profit were to approach with a request to pitch in four hours Saturday morning loading bags of food for the needy, “That’s a little more nebulous than reaching in my wallet,” Black continues. “In a warm movement of my heart, I say yes. Then Friday night comes along, then Saturday, and I’m groaning to myself and regretting making the commitment.” This hiccup is a consistent phenomenon, stemming from the complicated reality of committing time. Although a person may want to commit out of respect for the agency and the cause they’re promoting, serious thought must be put into possible involvement, particularly for the person who has not volunteered significantly in the past.
Black recommends that such individuals get their feet wet in easy ways first, to get a sense for the variables at play. Holiday-season volunteering is a good way to get this experience. “This type of volunteering is usually fun, and involves doing something upbeat in some way or another,” Black says. “People can get some experience under their belt and then go through some self-analysis of, ‘What did I get out of this? What was unexpected? What would it be like to be more involved, if I put in three-and-a half hours a week for a cause I believe in?’”
It’s true that, today more than ever before, families are strapped for time. The fast and unrelenting pace of everday life seems to leave very little time for volunteering. It’s important to keep in mind that, just like dollar donations, no amount of volunteered time is too small. “Time looks different for each person,” says Anya Angermeier, Houston Food Bank Corporate Volunteer Engagement Coordinator. “But no matter how much or how little extra time you have, you can choose to use that time to make a difference in the lives of others and in your community,” she says, explaining that there are always many projects, varied in cause and in time duration, for people to get involved in. “It feels good to give back,” she says.
Understand the Work Environment
Certain Houston areas are less attractive to volunteer in than others. The reality of non-profits is that many of them serve the needy and, as such, are based in the poorer parts of town. Some volunteers may feel unsafe in these poverty-stricken areas. It’s a difficult concept to settle for people who want to help the underprivileged, but don’t want to expose themselves to danger—or even the fear of danger—in the process. “You need to be up front about these concerns,” Black says. “If the agency gives you a location, and it’s not one you’re inclined to feel comfortable in, just say, ‘that’s a rough area, I don’t want to drive over there.’ Too many people don’t give this factor enough thought.”
In this same category are the intangible issues of work environment. Some office settings consist of a drab building with no windows. “That’s trickier psychologically than going to an attractive office every day with a beautiful window view,” Black explains.
Likewise, some assignments allow you to socialize and make acquaintances, adding to what Black calls the “psychic income” of your job. Other posts, however, can be dry and isolated, and you find yourself in a room doing data entry, with no human interactions other than to get your assignments and turn them in.
But people are different, and for some people, the idea of sitting at a computer and doing data entry week after week is comfortable and rewarding. For these people, virtual volunteering may be just the ticket. Black cautions that many people don’t really know themselves enough to take on virtual assignments with much success. “It’s very much human nature that people don’t realize how high the probability is that they’re not going to follow through reliably,” he says. “We all know the old cliché in an office setting, when it’s the end of the day on Friday, and in a moment of inspiration I pack some work in my briefcase with every intent to address it over the weekend,” Black describes. “Then comes Monday, I open my briefcase, realizing I didn’t touch a thing, and I just feel like a bad person.”
Still, he concedes that the world is becoming increasingly virtual, and more people have experience in doing remote work reliably and with a good track record.
Know Yourself and Your Psychic Income Needs
Although not the case with all volunteer jobs, in many cases, the clientele with whom the volunteer interacts are people who have been undergoing a lot of stress, perhaps domestically or health-related. This stress can make interpersonal interaction more challenging for the volunteer. Black offers the example of at-risk children. “Some of those children are teenagers who may come from rough environments, so may be rough around the edges personality-wise,” Black explains. “A person needs to consider if they’re ready for that sort of interpersonal interaction.” Becoming too personally attached to a client is another important possibility to consider, and it’s difficult to anticipate how vulnerable we are as individuals to this syndrome. “There may be no way to foretell how smoothly an interaction will go and trust our ability to not take home a lot of negative baggage from the assignment,” Black says. Still, he recommends pondering the situation, and in doing so, possibly gain insight into whether the job is too emotionally risky and it may be better to bypass the post in favor of another opportunity that might be more easygoing.
“As with anything in life, there’s good and bad, and the good in volunteering outweighs the negative consequences, and the most rewarding return on volunteering is the psychic income you get from involvement,” Black explains. “To me, the only point in doing good is to positively impact the lives of other individuals and to make a difference. The trick is to know that in some volunteer relationships it can be hard to know whether you’re impacting the client positively, negatively, or indifferently.”
Some types of volunteer jobs are appropriate for people who want to make a difference and want to get that feedback that they’re making a difference. For this type of volunteer, Black recommends adult literacy tutoring, which yields feedback in each session on the progress being made. For this reason, Black has moved this volunteering opportunity to the top of his recruiting list as something that really gives volunteers the sense of making difference in a permanent and wholly positive way. “Some things we do, we wonder how worthwhile it was, even when the good we do is obvious, like helping to paint the school. Then you visit three years later and it’s all trashed out again.” Black says with a chuckle and a sigh. “You wonder what was the point. You don’t have the risk like that with literacy tutoring. There’s not much by way of backsliding there or going back to point zero.”
Volunteering Gives Back in Many Ways
You can volunteer your time, treasure, or talent as an individual, as a couple, or as a family. In any scenario, the gift you give is returned in ways you may never have imagined.
Couples: Couples get a lot of multi-layered rewards from volunteering for an agency, especially a faith-based one, as they express their faith in a low-key but real way through doing good. It’s a shared experience, so they are sharing the experience and their faith commitment and are getting to interact with other volunteers who have the same value systems and lifestyles and desired impact for their volunteering. “They deepen their appreciation of each other and are also enriching their lives by broadening their circle of friends,” Black says.
Families: Volunteering can be a great bridging mechanism during that difficult phase between the tween and teen years, when kids are starting to act irritably toward their parents and maybe at time acting out in rebellion. Parents and kids volunteer together and share the values the work expresses. “Many kids are animal-oriented,” Black says, “so when kids and parents volunteer together in a setting where they’re benefitting real live animals, it creates a level of bonding that could otherwise be absent and leads to a sort of negotiated peace.” Kids are doing what they want to do, and doing it with the cooperation of their parents, in a way that wouldn’t have been possible if their parents weren’t along. “So they get to begrudgingly feel good about their parents,” Black laughs, adding that there are many places to help out with pet adoptions, animal grooming, and even zoo-related work. But volunteering joins families, regardless of the cause. It’s about sharing the experience of doing good. Families with children 8 years old and up are welcome at the Houston Food Bank Portwall Warehouse during any shift. The first Friday of every month is Family Night, where kids 8 years old and older can work in the project areas with parents, while 4 – 7 year-old children are allowed to come in and will be assigned a special project.
Stay-at-home moms: If a mom has an infant or is for some reason homebound, she is an excellent candidate for virtual volunteering. For moms who can get out a few hours each week, a vast world of opportunities is available, and some might allow for a small child to come along to work (check on this with the agency). A large subset of stay-at-home moms would benefit from the stimulation that volunteering gives: from getting out, doing something worthwhile and interesting, and from having a free range of choices. “With paid employment we’re really limited, having to take one job at a time and stick with it, or we’re considered unreliable,” Black explains. “But in volunteering, you get real existential freedom. Pick a college to get involved in, or an activity, within the limits of your background, education, and experience, you can get involved in different things for different durations of time.” Likewise, volunteer moms find freedom to test their mettle in new ways and new fields that can be very gratifying.
Youth: As most of us think back on childhood, one reason we were itching for the next birthday was because we could do more things, and for some of us, that meant getting some sort of job. “At age 12 I could get a paper route, at 14 more things opened to me, and at 16 I could be a delivery boy for a drug store,” Black says. There are plateaus that are marked by the age rung on the ladder, and these rungs are a signal of growing up. They are rights of passage to adulthood and, psychologically speaking, a big deal. “Volunteering is just unpaid work, so kids can and do get much of the same satisfaction out of doing a job and being taken seriously and treated as an adult by doing the work,” Black says. “Also, volunteering offers a way of seeing more of their real world than they would otherwise see in their kid lives. Kids are in school all day, or in church, or with the same circle of friends, and those are pretty stable almost to the point of monotony. Volunteering offers an existential leap, where you’ve suddenly broadened your life by reaching into areas you wouldn’t have encountered.” Increasingly, kids get credit for volunteering, and colleges give such work extra consideration during the admissions process. “So young people benefit both from their inner perspective and from others outside who value what they’re doing,” Black concludes. The holiday season cuts both ways for agencies seeking volunteers. There are many projects during this season that benefit worthwhile populations, whether they suffer from financial needs or health issues, homelessness, or domestic abuse. Some non profit efforts, like Star of Hope, are better known than others, and their needs gets filled more quickly. In fact, they can get more than what they actually need. But these agencies are merely the tip of the iceberg, Black says. “For every one of those agencies that reliably gets all the help they need, there are nine or ten that will struggle. Other lesser known agencies have needs that are just as dire, but don’t get the help they need because people are offering up help based on what they know.”
With all the benefits that come from volunteering, psychic income and otherwise, it makes sense to reach out sooner rather than later to help your cause of choice. Check out websites, like those made available by Volunteer Houston (www.volunteerhouston.org), Volunteer in Houston (www.volunteerinhouston.org), Volunteer Match (volunteermatch.org) and the City of Houston (http://www.houstontx.gov/volunteer), for tools that can help enrich your volunteering experience and paint your personal volunteering landscape.
Holiday Needs at the Houston Food Bank
The Houston Food Bank taps local volunteers for many of its efforts. “We have a great need year round for volunteers,” says Anya Angermeier, Corporate Volunteer Engagement Coordinator for the agency. “On a daily basis, we need at least 150 volunteers to meet normal production needs.” In addition to its normal production needs at the warehouse facility and kitchen facility, the Houston Food Bank adds to its load the first week of December with its “Share Your Holidays” effort. During this event, the agency needs volunteers at its Phone Bank to answer incoming calls from the community from families who are requesting a holiday box. The organization also receives a large Gift of Produce and needs volunteers to help put the produce on pallets for distribution to the community. The holiday boxes families are built by volunteers throughout November and December.
For more information, go to www.houstonfoodbank.org/volunteer.aspx, or call Ashley Cousan at 713-547-8604.