27 September 2010

volunteer expectations

As I get into my volunteer groove and have the first four projects of The Global Citizen Project under my belt, I’m beginning to figure out what does and doesn’t work for me in a volunteer role. Volunteering is a lot more challenging than I imagined it would be and has repeatedly pushed me past my usual comfort zone. It can be disconcerting and maddening and even scary at times, but every time I accomplish something I didn’t think possible, I am grateful for the opportunity to test my personal limits and proud of myself. Like put a gold star sticker on the fridge proud. I’m guessing every person has their own volunteering style, but here are a few things that I've found helpful:

Spell out on-the-ground directions. Example: When you land at XYZ airport, here’s how you get to us. I want to know the name of the bus line or its number, estimated travel times and costs involved. I am terrible with direction, so having accurate instruction upon arrival alleviates any post-flight logistical panic.

Be clear with expectations. I'm comfortable working about 6-8 hours a day. Much more than that makes me feel like I’m being taken advantage of. Also, I want to get a sense of the local culture, so I prefer five or six day work weeks (like in the real, paid working world). Work the volunteer to death and you can almost guarantee an almost instant decrease in productivity and enthusiasm.

Be honest about living situations and accommodations. Don’t tell me I’ll be staying in a bed and breakfast, when the digs make a beer soaked fraternity house look luxurious. I can deal with no hot water, compostable toilets, paper thin mattresses and non-heated housing, but only if I’m prepared.

Define the volunteer role. If I’ve signed on to assist a preschool class, I don’t expect to come up with lesson plans or take over teaching entirely when the teacher doesn’t feel like showing up. Be specific in what you expect from me and I'll do my best to deliver. I'm not a mind reader, so communication is key.

Give me space. I’m learning how to get along (better) with others and cohabitate in close, often very rustic quarters with a wide variety of personalities. I try to be as respectful as possible and learn from the never-ending rotating roster of global do-gooders I encounter, but definitely need some down time to process what I’m doing and check in with myself. I’ve run into several volunteers who operate on verbal auto-loop of all-about-me stories and have had to respectfully inform them that every single second of time spent together does not need to be filled with conversation.

Give me the tools to do my job. I want to do a good job, really I do, but if you don’t give me the tools to my job (whether it’s information, support or supplies), I can’t be as productive as I’m sure we’d both like.

Volunteers, what else have you found helpful in your efforts to serve? I'm still learning, a lot by trial and error since each of my projects varies so much, and always looking to improve.


Deb M said...

Love reading your blog and I discovered your story while researching for my own 3-4 month global volunteering trip! Referring to one of your previous posts (when you were seeking like minded people!) is there a way to communicate with you outside of the blog? I am a 51 year old single woman and exploring the volunteer tourism angle and would love to email with you if you have time or willingness! I tried the email on your blog (charyn@charynpfeuffer.com) but that bounced back). Thanks! Deb M.

Charyn Pfeuffer said...

Hi Deb, Nice to meet you. Please email me at cpfeuffer (at) yahoo (dot) com. Would love to hear more about your upcoming volunteering plans. Been learning a lot by trial and error and trying to find opportunities better suited to my age/demographic. Would love to hear what you've come across. C

Anonymous said...

Hi Charyn, Great post as always. I think your thoughts here resonate with volunteering in general. I think you might be interested in what one great volunteer program (DC Central Kitchen) recently added, a volunteer Bill of Rights: http://www.dccentralkitchen.org/files/volunteer_bill_of_rights.pdf