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The Wet Blanket vs. The Martyr: How to Be a Kick-Butt Volunteer

A volunteer, by definition, positively serves and improves our community. A little birdie told me that some volunteers prefer to laze around and play Candy Land instead of getting any real work done. I assume that these people believe that since they are volunteering, they are automatically helping and consequently forget to put genuine sweat into their work.

Is it possible to have your peacock feathers a bit too fully displayed and misdirect your admirable intentions? I posed the following questions to a bunch of my cronies who have years of experience in the non-profit sector: What makes a first-rate volunteer? What makes a helplessly high-maintenance volunteer? How can you use your skills to be a super-hero volunteer?

I’ll be bold enough to guarantee that my grass-roots amigos can direct you down the most direct boulevard to becoming a kick-butt volunteer.

Jennifer Beahrs, a Teach for America alumnus, also volunteered as an educational director teaching children living in poverty in India:

Good volunteers take their work as seriously as they would if they were getting paid; bad volunteers think that as long as they do something, they’re a big help. This results in inconsistent commitments and disappointed people who have to rely on volunteers who don’t show up.

Good volunteers are doing it because they believe in the mission ... bad volunteers are doing it because it looks good on their resume (or because they have the hots for another volunteer).

Good volunteers “know when to hold ‘em and know when to fold ‘em” (according to Kenny Rogers, The Gambler) ... they know when to “step up” to responsibility as needed and when it’s time to “step down” a bit to let someone else make a decision.

William Most, a Harvard graduate, environmental activist, and pro pedal boat racer:

Be proactive! It’s not easy for organizations to figure out how best to use volunteers, so actively figure out ways to contribute and be useful.

Help raise money! My friend Maura throws fundraisers for the program she volunteers with. She makes a deal with a local bar that they’ll donate a dollar from every drink on a certain day during certain hours, and then she invites all her friends to join her for a happy hour. What’s better then getting boozed up while raising cash-money for a good cause?

Let them know if you are coming! It’s okay if you have to flake—but be sure the organizer knows first.

Emily Delong has volunteered with the elderly since her middle school days. She recently volunteered tutoring children in urban parts of Denver, Colorado, and as a back-up singer for Alicia Keys:

Remember that the backbone of philanthropy is the simple idea of helping others. It is a selfless privilege, not a duty or right, to be able to help others.

Adam Fink, a true humanitarian, dedicates his life to the fight against violence, poverty, and injustice—he recently returned from two years in Africa, where he worked with the organization Invisible Children:

Adam Fink’s Ten Commandments for Volunteers

  1. Be purposeful. Know what skills you have to contribute before you arrive on the scene.
  2. Be flexible. This includes being prepared to do administrative grunt work. (Sorry, not all aid work involves washing babies and hugging orphaned children.)
  3. Be reflective. Constantly question your motives. Ask yourself why you are helping, think of your motivation, and keep that at the forefront of your mind.
  4. Be receptive. Learn as much as you can. That said, be wary of engaging for too long with NGO veterans who have become hardened and cynical from their work. Instead, find long-termers with hope still gleaming in their eyes. Then, latch on with open ears.
  5. Be positive. Take pride in your idealism—it’s the only thing that can ward off the inevitability of cynicism’s approach in your difficult environment.
  6. Be realistic. Your idealism can be balanced only by the knowledge that you are not here to save the world, but to play one specific role and that you may never witness the effects of your efforts.
  7. Be independent. Much of your work will depend on your personal initiative. Be a team player, but do not rely on others to guide you every step of the way.
  8. Be empathetic. Your ability to succeed will depend entirely on your connection to and understanding of the people you work with.
  9. Be humble. Don’t speak much. Listen. Avoid grandiose conclusions about a problem, community, or philosophy that you were recently introduced to. Act. Think. Feel. But don’t come to too many conclusions—they will only halt your experiential learning process.
  10. Have a ball. Just be sure you’ve earned it.


Faye Johnson, a native of South Africa, has traveled around the world as a volunteer. She interned with Human Rights Watch and currently works on foreign affairs issues for the U.S. government:

I never hire anyone who says, “I’ll come, but I am ONLY doing ____.” These people will take more time then they are worth to train because they refuse to jump in where they are needed and don’t take initiative. I will ask a potential volunteer how adamant they are about their stipulation—they potentially are just nervous, or feel like they don’t have the skills needed to be helpful. This can easily be remedied by asking some basic questions about various tasks. If the person still seems adamant about only completing one task, and it’s a multi-task project, I will look for someone else.

Natasha Sultan, a Hollywood resident who currently works for a major producer in Los Angeles:

I volunteer my soul to the devil every day. Does that count?

Tara Ebrahimi has volunteered her summers to work with Native American tribes. She has also perfected the craft of making root beer floats while working with the elderly:

The critical thing to remember is: YOU are there to help THEM. Don’t be fussy about what you are assigned to do; sometimes it might seem like you’re doing something trivial or inane, like stuffing envelopes, but every little thing helps and there are a million little tasks necessary to make an organization run.

Another thing to beware of is the “Mother Theresa” syndrome: a longing to help everyone. This becomes overwhelming and you can’t forget that overextending yourself in volunteering will leave a yucky taste in your mouth (and) cause you to smash the whole thing altogether. In my humble estimation, helping one person is a whole lot better than helping a lot of people just a little bit. Plus, you have the power to create a chain of volunteerism.

Kyle Smith, a volunteer since childhood and a former government employee, currently volunteers with his church on a weekly basis:

A good volunteer is a person willing to step away from the limelight ... it’s not about you, it’s about others.

Apparently, it is highly plausible for you to show up in your best volunteering ’fit with your polished teeth shining and end up being more of a pain in the tushie. However, any effort to help your community, even picking up a sausage McMuffin wrapper off the road, is needed and appreciated. Before you start bragging to your butcher about your work with near-sighted orphans, take a moment to reflect on your involvement. Are you invested and committed? Make absolutely sure that your intentions match your exertions before you go forth and save the world.

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