In some ways, it's a tricky business. Just like a paying job, a volunteer needs to balance what they give with what is given back to them. If it isn't a good fit for some reason, then you start making excuses not to go. You're late one day, and then the following week you don't show up at all.
What do the experts say about volunteering? I read a bunch of articles and took away four gems.
To volunteer, find your passion, your talent, and go from there.
The good folks at Amigos de Animales have been working with volunteers for a long time and most people I talk to say good things about them: their mission (spaying and neutering dogs and cats), their commitment (over 10,000 spayed so far and counting) and their attitude toward their volunteers (they think volunteers walk on water.)
Alicia McGuigan, the Co-president and Director of Volunteers for Amigos de Animales, told me that her philosophy of providing good volunteer services is to: "Give a person a job that suits them and say Thank you."
Ruby McKenzie, one of the founders of Amigos de Animales, noted: "Our volunteers are given options as to where they would like to work and if that is not working, we move them into other areas that might be more appealing. We put new people with people who know what they're doing. We don't let them feel neglected or confused."
Sounds like a no brainer, but often agencies are so immersed in what their needs are that they forget about the volunteers who need to meet those needs and what they need. Because when looking at volunteers, you've got your techies/logical/practical types vs. your creative/pull a trick out of the hat types, or your extrovert vs. your introvert." A chatty people-person stuck in a small room using the copy machine is not going to stick around a long time.
Find something that fits your talents and your personality. Then as you give, you're giving truly of yourself.
Make sure the agency gives you training and then follows up to help you be successful.
Alicia said that training is essential for their organization. They offer formal classes and then pair new volunteers with experienced ones so the newbies learn how to do things correctly. For Amigos de Animales, it is especially important because they don't want animals or volunteers getting hurt because they don't know they are doing, but all agencies that use volunteers should offer some sort of an inservice on their mission and how they will use your talents to accomplish it. Every organization has its own culture and value system, as well as its own way of doing things, and without training, there will be problems. I've seen agencies throw volunteers into complete chaos, and then complain when the volunteers contribute to, as oppose to minimize, the bedlam.
Speak up, and do so with respect and consideration.
"We are all wonderful, beautiful wrecks. That's what connects us--that we're all broken, all beautifully imperfect.” Emilio Estevez
There is just no way that you can volunteer, or frankly do anything in life involving other people, without misunderstandings or hurt feelings. Because we're beautiful wrecks.
"Everyone has gifts. Everyone has quirks. Our job is to give practical ideas how how to handle tricky situations, " Alicia points out.
When someone's quirks, or maybe your own quirks, cause problems for you, speak up. An agency won't know there is a problem if you don't tell them. Keeping your mouth shut just hurts everybody, but most of all it hurts you and those you want to help. If the agency blows you off, that tells you something. But if they address the problem, and the outcome is not what you wanted, know that just because it isn't your solution doesn't mean it isn't a good solution under the circumstances.
Just say something.
Work with people who appreciate you.
"Volunteers come for 4-8 hours," Ruby of Animales told me."They are fed and watered and appreciated for the work they do." This makes sense from a volunteer appreciation perspective and also from a practical viewpoint. No one wants a volunteer with low blood sugar dealing with scared or angry animals. But any agency should provide tangible proof that they appreciate what their volunteers do for them. Because it's not what you say, it's what you do.
Animales shows appreciation and respect for their volunteers through a gala every year. They host a big thank you party with food and drink for all. A fuss is made over those lovely volunteers, all who get an "Animal Lover" pin. I know of other agencies who make a big fuss, and it makes a big difference. Parties celebrate us and what we do, and what is more cause to celebrate than humans giving of their time and talents and doing wondrous things with them? It doesn't have to be expensive, it just has to be done with love and thoughtfulness.
It just has to say to volunteers: "Damn you're good. And we know it. And we thank you."