Cleaning House: Choosing Volunteer Experiences that Work!

Fancy meeting you here! I know it’s been a short eternity since I last wrote, but I’m so excited to share today’s topic – selecting volunteer opportunities that really work for you. I think that, since starting this blog almost two years ago (!), my biggest lesson has been this – figuring out what to say yes, or no to – and how to say no even if I originally said yes! – so that my volunteer engagements match my priorities, enrich my life and work, and help me to contribute to others, as opposed to feeling like oppressive violin lessons I abhor and for which I didn’t practice and lost the bow.

So at one point about a year ago, I was an active volunteer (committee or board member) for eight organizations, including: 

  1. SpruceFoundation
  2. Mercy Hospice
  3. WSWCA
  4. PhilaSoup
  5. UrbanRoots
  6. Philadelphia Orchard Project
  7. Graduation Coach Campaign
  8. Junior League

While I was proud to be connected to all these amazing causes, there were a few problems. Number one, I felt insane. I was committing about 20-30 hours a week to volunteering, in addition to trying to start my own business. Not feasible.

Number two, I felt I was doing a crap job. Letting emails go unresponded to; missing events; not fulfilling my quota for fundraising, or donations, or hours; I was sloppy, which was short-changing these organizations and the people they serve.

Number three, I felt disconnected; many of these organizations I had joined because I hoped to find community there, but unfortunately I didn’t – most often because I was ashamed of #2, and assumed everyone thought of me as the weak link (which I’m sure they didn’t because, newsflash, people aren’t thinking about you all the time/pretty much ever). My disconnect also came from things such as not having a clear sense of the mission of my committee or the organization; infrequent meetings and unclear assignments; or simply being unable to find the time and energy needed to be more engaged.

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The clincher for me was when I stepped down as the Outreach Chair for PhilaSoup, after having just been voted into the position about two weeks prior. I realized that I wasn’t going to be doing a good job at it, since I was barely keeping up with the work I already had, and more importantly – I didn’t want to do it. But the old “you’re not a quitter, damnnit!” narrative started playing, and I felt like since I’d said yes, it was a spell I couldn’t break. I didn’t go back on my word – and if I stepped down, what kind of a person would I be? Suddenly, something really simple become some kind of ontological melodrama. 

I loved PhilaSoup, and I wanted to be in a leadership role, but managing the social media and outreach campaigns was not only something that I wasn’t particularly talented at, but it was also something I kind of hated doing. I felt like this wasn’t a good reason to leave the post; this isn’t supposed to be fun, this is – wait a minute. Isn’t it?

I started asking myself, “what do I want to get out of my volunteer experiences?” I felt, at first, that this was a selfish question to ask. I then realized it was the most important one to ask. If I don’t love my volunteer work, how can I do it well? What will I be contributing to this cause if I give of myself begrudgingly, unhappily, resentfully, from a place of depletion or frustration? Who am I really helping? What’s the point? 

If my volunteer experiences serve me as much as I serve them, then we’re in flow; there’s balance, and increased energy; I feel more committed, invested, motivated, and most importantly, happy.

I made a list of what I wanted to get out of volunteering. Here it is, in no particular order:

1. Introduces me to potential clients – either through fellow volunteers, or those served

2. Helps me use my skills with a new audience who can benefit from them

3. Supports women, children, or animals (the causes of my heart)

4. Presents opportunities to grow into a leadership position, which will help me to more effectively do 1-3

5. Allows me to make an impact I can see/be effective


I then went back to my volunteer opportunities, and began cleaning house. Here’s what my new list looks like:

  1. WSWCA
  2. PhilaSoup
  3. Philadelphia Orchard Project
  4. Center for Grieving Children
  5. Junior League

I cut out three organizations because they weren’t meeting my criteria – while they were all meeting #3 of serving my target population (which is, I think, the thing we mostly focus on when we choose volunteer experiences), I wasn’t meeting the people I wanted to meet, there weren’t opportunities for me to contribute my skills, I wasn’t effective in the roles in which I was placed, and I didn’t see real potential for growth/leadership opportunities. I added another organization – The Center for Grieving Children – to whom I actually reached out to offer Reiki services for their volunteer mentors & counselors; children who have suffered a loss is a cause incredibly close to my heart, having lost both of my own parents at a young age, and I also am eager to share my Reiki skills with those who could benefit from them (which could meet #1 and #2). Within my current list, I also changed roles – I am now managing the Teacher Ambassador Program for PhilaSoup, which is a much better fit and builds on my expertise, and I joined the Project Research & Development committee of the JLP, which also will allow me to contribute much more effectively.

Even though it’s still a long list and some of these new roles are a heavier lift than the old ones, I’m still (at least for now!) feeling like it’s much easier and joyful to volunteer (as it should be!) because these opportunities are aligned with what I love; they help to feed my business, as well as my sense of purpose; they allow me to meet and spend time with great people who I’d want to meet anyway; and they are attached to tangible products, which help me to see whether I’m making the impact I want to.

I’d be curious for you, what’s on your list is? How do you feel about even making a list – does it feel selfish or overly transactional? If you thought about it as taking care of yourself so that you can serve others better, as opposed to being opportunistic, would that list have a firmer place in your plans for altruism? What would stay on, what would come off, and what might be added to the list?




One thought on “Cleaning House: Choosing Volunteer Experiences that Work!

  1. I love this post. I was thinking all of the same things without even realizing that I was thinking them. I love the approach of sitting down and reasoning out what you want to get out of your volunteerism and then finding the best matches. It’s an approach that we can use on all kinds of situations – relationships, job, finances, life….Thanks for communicating a complicated concept so clearly.

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