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4 Tips for Success When Volunteering for a Non-Profit

There are healthy and unhealthy mindsets to have when going into an organization as a volunteer. Here are 4 do’s and don’ts for the next time you choose to volunteer someplace, whether it’s at a religious, humanitarian, or community organization.

1) Listen to the Organization’s Leader

           This may sound obvious, but sometimes we let our own opinions get in the way of what’s best for an organization. When I volunteered for two years at a summer camp in Virginia, I asked the director why the stage in their chapel was built so high. I am 6 feet tall, and when I stand on the stage, my head nearly touches the ceiling. It turns out the director had discussed the details of the stage with members of a mission team when it was being built, explaining to them why he wanted it built a certain way. The gentlemen on the team argued for a while and then conceded to building it lower, or so he thought. While the director went to check on another project, the team decided to go back to their old design. The stage gets built and there is nothing that can be done to change it, and when the director finally gets the volunteers to step up on their newly finished stage they say, “Oh, now I see what you mean...” By then it was too late.

The Chapel Stage at CMMBC. Used with permission by Joe E. Faulkinbury

The Chapel Stage at CMMBC. Used with permission by Joe E. Faulkinbury

           As a volunteer, you certainly bring professional and personal experiences of your own to an organization. However, your job while you are there is not always to do what you think is best. There are times when the leader may inquire of your professional opinion, and there are definitely times to interject it if there are certain legal codes that are not being met, but your main job is to meet the needs of the organization, even if you don’t understand or think something else would work better. This leads into number two.

2) Be Willing to Do Anything Asked of You

           Obviously this has a level of common sense to it. By all means, don’t do anything illegal even if you are asked to. What I mean is be ready to do things that you may not see immediate value in. My camp director once asked a young volunteer to go around the camp and check all the light-bulbs to make sure they were not burned out, and to change any that were. The boy turned up a fit because he came do something meaningful on this mission trip he was on, not go around checking light-bulbs. The director let him finish and cool down and then explained to him that every light-bulb that was burned out on the camp takes time away from his job when there are campers on site. Instead of being able to interact with them, and be involved with the campers, he has to take 10 or 15 minutes out of his day to walk across campus to find the right type of bulb, just to go back up to a cabin to change the burned out one.

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          No job is insignificant. Most of the time, if you are volunteering for an organization and they ask you to do something seemingly insignificant, chances are it’s not. Managers try not to abuse their volunteers, especially managers of small non-profits. If they are asking you to do it, they really need it done. Remember, 10 or 15 minutes may not seem like a lot of time, but if you have over a hundred light-bulbs in your facilities, that time really starts to add up.

3) Don’t Be a Lynch Pin

           What do I mean by this? Don’t feel like the entire success of an organization rests on you. This is the quickest way to burnout and will leave you feeling irritated and taken advantage of. Does it mean you are not important? No, not at all. But the organization was around before you arrived, and will still be around after you leave. If you start thinking you are the one holding everything together, you will begin to undertake too many tasks and sometimes take unnecessary risks. I did this myself while volunteering in Virginia. There were several hiking and biking trails at the camp where I was, and a particular switchback needed a retaining wall to make the grade easier. A few weeks prior, I had led a team of two other guys to dig a trench for some telephone poles that we were planning on using as posts to hold back the dirt. After digging trenches, the 3 of us took turns carrying 4 foot sections of a telephone pole up the trail, which is on the side of a mountain. We only carried 5 or 6 sections up, because the director and I were going to cut the rest later that week.

           So what did I do when the telephone poles were cut? I went by myself to carry them up the 200 yards to the switchback.  Telephone poles are not light by any means. They are between 8 and 12 inches in diameter and are pressure treated, making them very heavy. I felt obligated to finish the switchback because there wasn’t another team coming in for a couple of months to work on this project, so I tried to do it myself. Fortunately I didn’t throw out my back, though I did need several days to recover from straining my muscles too much. Don’t let the weight of the organization rest on you, it doesn’t.

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4) It’s OK to Not Finish Everything

Mixing concrete for joints at a church in Puerto Rico

Mixing concrete for joints at a church in Puerto Rico

           When I was in Puerto Rico volunteering with a local organization to help recover after Hurricane Maria, the leaders there told us how we were the 50th team to partner with them. Our work was not only following after the numerous teams who came before us, but also preparing the way for teams who would follow after us. Some of the projects we worked on were only stepping stones on the road to recovery. We mixed concrete for joints to rebuild walls of a church, standing in the place where the roof would eventually be placed, maybe months down the road. On another work site we were able to completely strip off the old roof and get fresh plywood put on to replace it. As a storm started coming in, we were able to get the last of the boards put on and start putting tarps downs, knowing that the next day we would be flying home. 

           There are some projects I never got to see finished, but I know I helped in the process. That’s the way it is for volunteers sometimes, we work on something someone else started, and another person we will never know finished it in our place. Sometimes there are jobs so big that we cannot finish them ourselves, but we can prepare the way for others to pick up where we left off.

Hurricane Recovery in Puerto Rico after Maria. Rebuilding the roof of an elder care facility.

Hurricane Recovery in Puerto Rico after Maria. Rebuilding the roof of an elder care facility.

           The next time you volunteer for a soup kitchen, mission trip, or summer camp, remember that the leaders there know the territory. They know the community, the culture, and the needs of the organization. Sometimes what they ask us to do may not seem all that important, but it can have a profound impact on the organization down the road. Don’t let your pride get in the way of being a good help to the organization, and don’t allow yourself to be burdened by trying to fulfill all of the organization’s needs either. It is okay to prepare the groundwork for someone else. Show grace to yourself if you can’t finish a job, and know that other volunteers are coming after you to pick up where you left off. Sometimes in the best team efforts, you don’t get to meet the other players.