I managed to live out fifteen years of my adult life without volunteering. It's not that I never did anything for free. I frequently drove family members to the airport, brought side dishes to Thanksgiving and helped friends move (albeit begrudgingly). But, due to work and later, child-rearing pressures (or so I told myself), I did not commit to any kind of formal volunteering and I liked it that way.
Three years ago, it suddenly dawned on me that I had been missing something. I signed up for my first official volunteer role, and have been making up for lost time ever since. I can't pinpoint the reason for my change of heart but I can admit that it wasn't pure altruism. A need to network for business due to a global recession, my kids starting school and my 40th birthday combined to create the right time and the right environment for volunteering.
Since then I've sat on the board of a professional organization, helped to run a major school fundraising event and offered my PR skills to charitable groups. I've realized that, while most people who volunteer do so willingly, others are dragged or tricked into it with assurances that they will "only have to spend a few hours". There is a subtle etiquette required for the process to run smoothly and to ensure that people return to help again. Here are my tips for keeping the process civil.
Tips for Volunteers
Do it willingly - Although it's hard to say "no" sometimes, there's really no point in agreeing to volunteer for something if you will regret it. Before you commit, make sure that you have the time to follow through and be clear about the tasks you are taking on. It's better to be honest now than to be resentful later.
Honour your commitment -A volunteer role is not a suggestion. It's a commitment that you have agreed to honour. While genuine emergencies might force you to bail on your promise, it's not acceptable to flake out of volunteer work just because you got busy in other parts of your life. People are counting on you and dropping out causes a lot of extra work for organizers and other volunteers.
Take it seriously - You're not getting paid but that doesn't mean it's not important - to you, to the organization and to the people who benefit from your efforts. While you will not (and should not) be held accountable for the success of the whole venture, you should give it your best and do everything you can to make a first-class contribution. Show up on time, meet deadlines and be prepared to report on your progress at status meetings.
Remember why you're there - We all expect to be thanked for our efforts. But when you volunteer, it should be because you believe in the cause and want to make a difference. In many cases, the people who are supervising you are volunteers themselves and don't have time to constantly check in on you and show their gratitude.
Be a friend - For many people, volunteering is a way to meet new people and to become part of a community. Although it's tempting to chat and gossip with the people you already know at meetings or events, make an effort to reach out to new volunteers and introduce them to others. If they feel welcome, they'll come back.
Tips for Volunteer Managers
Be professional - Have proper role descriptions, including expected time commitment for each volunteer role you have available. The more clarity volunteers have at the beginning, the better the experience for everyone. Make sure all volunteers understand the expectations and deadlines involved in their project, give them the tools they need for success and keep them up to date on any changes in the plan.
Listen - When volunteers are up-front about what they can and cannot do, listen to them. Don't agree with them in the hopes that they will change their mind. If a volunteer comes up with a great idea, don't automatically assign it to them to execute. That just makes people reluctant to ever suggest ideas. And if past, current, or potential volunteers say "no" to a request for help, don't pester them. They'll be more likely to come back when they have more time if the relationship is pleasant.
Say thank you - If coordinating volunteers is part of your paid job, it's your role to acknowledge and thank volunteers personally and publicly. On the other hand, if you are also a volunteer in the project, remember to say "thank you" whenever possible and listen to concerns, but you shouldn't be judged if you're not "grateful enough".
Play to their strengths - Everyone has different skills and the project will be more successful if volunteers aren't forced into roles outside of their comfort zones. Some people are born salespersons and others are great at organizing lists. One might relish the idea of serving as the official spokesperson while another breaks into a sweat at the thought of public speaking. Let them do what they're good at and they'll shine.
Learn how to chair a meeting - Grievances abound in volunteer work and status meetings can quickly turn into a bitch-fest if you don't stay focused. Give everyone a set amount of floor time to share updates and table concerns and then move on to the next person. Schedule off-line discussions to deal with major issues.