#PMNG Knowledge Series: All Hail the Grand Volunteer (Or Not)! What You Weren’t Told About Volunteering

Today, I’d like to speak on the subject of Volunteering.

Having volunteered for quite a few projects & causes myself, I’ve learned there are some lessons worth learning which I’d like to share with you.

First things first – volunteering is hard and is not for everyone. It’s typically a thankless job & you’ll probably be taken for granted as very few have learned the delicate art of appreciating what they do not pay for. Nevertheless, it’s a noble pursuit particularly when it’s for a good cause. And there are many good reasons to volunteer. However, when you choose one, know you are no longer doing anyone a favour.

Your reasons for volunteering may include: Belief, fulfillment, networking, opportunity to test skills or products, experience, exposure, purpose…the list goes on. Once you decide to volunteer, you should give the same dedication & commitment to excellence you would any paid assignment. Anything else is unworthy of you and a disservice to the cause you’re volunteering for. A sacred tenet of volunteering is to adopt the same approach to quality for God, country, Alma Mater or cause.

Keep in mind WHY you’re volunteering, always. It will help on those days you feel like quitting. And I assure you, there are days you’ll want to quit. You will feel you’ve wasted your effort when you wonder why you’re serving in the first place and come up empty. Therefore, have a strong reason for serving with clear outcomes and a definite time frame. Yes, I said time frame, because there are some things you should never do when volunteering:

i. Beware of never ending assignments.

If you want to volunteer on a revolving basis, ensure you still fix a definite tenor which you can renew if you choose to. Tenor gives you a chance to re-evaluate and take stock of achievements, failures and changing objectives. Also ensures you’re not taken for granted.

ii. Beware of “dumping syndrome”.

This is a scenario where a group deliberates on a solution, but implementation somehow falls solely on your shoulders. Strongly resist this. Yes, the responsibility may be an acknowledgement of your ability but trust me, it’s more about everyone else avoiding work. If a project is a team effort, EVERYONE must share the burden of implementation with a designated lead and resources. A project without a leader and dedicated resources for implementation is dead-on-arrival.

iii. Resist being taken for granted.

I’m sure you recognise the situation where you do all the work, but are sidelined anytime there’s an acknowledgement of contributions or a reward. I call this a conspiracy of ingratitude. Never accept it. Always document your contributions for posterity (NOT boasting rights). This is because anything that is not documented does not officially exist. If you ever need to walk away from a project, do so with dignity. Channel the lessons learned and experiences to a worthier project.

iv. Beware of narrow-vision.

Never sacrifice your purpose, family or life calling for someone else’s vision. This is where tenor comes in handy. It gives you a chance to assess the effort being expended on your own assignments relative to what you’re volunteering for. You can then adjust accordingly.

v. Beware of waste.

When you volunteer, make sure there’s a system in place to capture all contributions and deliver a viable product or else all your efforts will come to nought. Imagine creating beautiful plans that never see the light of day. And please don’t volunteer for a cause whose leaders are not committed to implementation. It’s a waste of your time and contributions.

Now, a word for organisations that use volunteers.

If you regularly court high level professionals as volunteers, there are a few things to bear in mind. Your staff must be ready to give up weekends and after hours to align with the free time of your volunteers. Sometimes weekends & after-hours is only time they have to give you after their day jobs. You can’t want their input, yet desire it at your organisation’s convenience. It’s not going to work. (Moreso if these volunteers reside in a different time zone from yours). Your volunteers will likely call at odd hours because that’s the only time they can spare. Take it or leave it, but don’t complain.

I sincerely hope these insights will prove useful to you – whether you’re a volunteer or organisation. I wish you all the best on your volunteering journey.

[#PMNG is a social media series exploring practical project management principles for business, causes and life. © Subomi Plumptre. She may be reached on Twitter @subomiplumptre]

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