A Tale of Two Volunteers

Volunteering is the theme of this month’s Yahoo! Mother Board (yes, I’ve joined something else!) and I have to chuckle as I read the posts of the other bloggers because some of them talk about super-volunteers and some talk about slacker moms and I can say that I fall squarely into both categories, depending on which segment of my “world” you talk to.

As previously posted, I am the incoming President of the local Junior League. I commit many, many hours to this organization and part of their mission is to promote voluntarism (small nit, you can say voluntarism or volunteerism, there is a very minor difference not worth quibbling over in this post). I serve on another community board and serve my community in other ways. However, there are other groups which ask for my volunteer time and which I used to be more involved in and which I don’t. Yes, part of it is a matter of time — a girl can only be in so many places at once. But part of it has to do with volunteer appreciation.

I’m not talking about luncheons or awards or certificates or anything like that. In fact, I personally don’t like those things much, though I know some people find those types of recognition extremely gratifying.  I’m talking about actually appreciating the skills and time I have to give.  A particular organization I used to give not a lot of time to, but at least some, simply failed to see any value in my organizational, technical or communication skills.  My tendency to turn to the Web to solve problems was apparently against their organizational culture.  From time to time they’d throw me a bone and let me do a computer-related task, but mostly they did not want to learn anything new and they didn’t want me to ever suggest anything new.  My skills and experience were of no interest to them, they wanted to do things the same way they’d always done it and I either needed to get with the program or get out.  When I made one last suggestion to try to solve a problem and was greeted with, “Not everyone is like you and wants to use the Web,” I realized what my answer was.  It was time for me to get out.  Get out of the way.  I’m the “slacker mom” because I don’t volunteer there any more, but I don’t volunteer because I don’t find it enjoyable.  Every time I try to just show up and do shift work (vowing to “shut up and show up”), I’m reminded just how much of an outcast I am in that organization and I come home wishing I had spent my time elsewhere.  Life is too short to feel miserable during your volunteer time.

Contrast that to my volunteer experiences with Junior League or my involvement with Leadership Fairfax or my other Board work, where my skills and experience are not only welcomed, but the organizations are always asking for more of it.  I walk away from these experiences feeling recharged, energized, and willing to do just about anything they want me to do.  I have done everything from shift work to long-range strategic planning – even in the same day – and I always walk away feeling exuberant.  Naturally the mission or cause is the primary reason for volunteering, but knowing that you are valued as a volunteer keeps you coming back.

When I go to my children’s schools, I go there because of them.  But I appreciate how the teachers’ faces light up and they say “thank you!”  Cutting construction paper flowers is not my life’s purpose, but if it makes my son’s teacher’s life a little bit easier, then that’s a good use of my time.  The fact that she seems so grateful makes me all that much more willing to do it.  Not once has my help been turned down or turned away nor have I been shamed for not having more time to give.  They are willing to take me as I am and take what I can provide. 

I’ve just finished a half day of training the League’s incoming leadership about being inspiring leaders.  If there is one thing they’ve taken away from today’s training, I hope it is that part of being a good leader is remembering how to treat your volunteers.  If you are in the role of recruiting or managing volunteers and find yourself surrounded by “slackers” you may want to ask yourself what kind of message you’ve been sending.  Did I use to be your volunteer?  Your “slackers” may be someone else’s star volunteers — see if you can keep them from running out the door!

Check out Volunteer Fairfax’s Volunteer Bootcamp — a great training program for managers of volunteers!  I have no affiliation with them, I just think it’s chock full of great info!

About JavaMom


  1. Your tale of the tech-adverse organization reminds me of my first experience with PTA, many years ago. In those pre-Facebook days, most of the other moms I met really did not use computers much or even had email addresses — and so they did not see the benefit of using email to communicate, or even of creating a nice website. As I couldn’t explain all of this to people who had NO CLUE, I ended up just doing it. Eventually, they all got it — and they appreciated it. Of course, all of those women now are HUGE on Facebook. I guess it’s hard to be ahead of your time :)

  2. It IS great when our skills are valued…especially when we’re offering them on a volunteer basis/for free.

  3. You make such a great point and it’s an important lesson for organizations to learn. I’m part of a group that corners volunteers rather than encourages volunteers. If you open your mouth with an idea or constructive criticism, it’s assumed you’re stepping up and taking on a task, though nobody appreciates it. I’m trying to learn to keep my mouth shut, but it’s a real shame because I would like to be involved if the environment were more positive. I’m spending my time and energy elsewhere too. I’m glad you’ve found such positive places to be involved and that you know where to draw the line.

  4. This is an extremely important post and I’m so glad you re-posted it so that I didn’t miss it! The assumption that parents don’t volunteer because we’re apathetic is completely dismissive of some of the other issues that might lie underneath. I have been there, done that, when it comes to offering suggestions that are completely unwelcome because they’re (gasp) new. And sometimes, yes, a newcomer might offer something, not knowing that it’s been tried in the past, but if that’s stated with at least appreciation for the effort, then I’m more inclined to try again. I’m more inclined now to find out how long someone’s been volunteering. If there a lot of “old-timers,” that reflects well for the organization.

  5. Okay, I’m a month late getting to this, but I’m glad I saved the link because this is a great post. Love this line: Life is too short to feel miserable during your volunteer time.

    We need to find volunteer experiences that has something (deep, meaning, warm fuzzies, or chances to learn and grow, for example) in it for us.

    See you in a few weeks?


  1. […] for me, I couldn’t help but relate to JavaMom who said that she falls into both categories: super-volunteers and slacker moms. Just like her, if […]

  2. […] for me, I couldn’t help but relate to JavaMom who said that she falls into both categories: super-volunteers and slacker moms. Just like her, if […]