Tuesday, 16 October 2012

How to be a great volunteer and get the most out of volunteering

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Before you click away thinking "Oh, how boring", just ask yourself if you are a volunteer. You might think you're not but you probably are. If you help at your child's school or preschool, you are a volunteer. School governors are the largest force of volunteers in this country. If you're on the PTFA, PTA or whatever it's called, or have even ever stood on a stall at a fete, you are a volunteer. If your child or children are still too young for school and you help at a toddler group, you're a volunteer - even if it's just putting out the chairs and tidying up the toys. If you've ever hosted a coffee morning at your house, you too are a volunteer. If you help at a child's sports session, dance school, cub pack or guide company, you're a volunteer. And they're just the examples I can think of that most parents are likely to do.

Volunteers are a huge force for good. If people didn't volunteer, then quite simply, lots of things wouldn't run so smoothly, or at all. They raise much needed funds for community projects and charities. But it's not all one way traffic. Volunteering can really help people develop new skills that can be transferred into the workplace, it can help improve confidence and give you a sense of belonging. Just look how well received the Games Makers were during the Olympics and Paralympics!

But how can you get the most of volunteering? Having been a volunteer, managing other volunteers, an employee working with volunteers, and still volunteering myself, I have some views on that and some tips you might like to consider.

1. Don't be scared to offer your services. People often look at voluntary organisations and think they have it all covered, but the fact is they may be struggling with people doing multiple roles and they just need a break. New volunteers with fresh perspective and enthusiasm are always welcome.

2. Consider what you have to offer and what you can commit. There are volunteering opportunities that may take a few hours every now and then, ones that can be fitted in around very small children and can be done from home, or ones that are restricted to an hour at the same time each week. Go for the ones that fit you and your lifestyle in the best possible way. Choose things you enjoy doing because you'll enjoy it more and that way, you'll do it for longer. There are voluntary roles out there doing lots of different things, and using lots of different skills. If you want to develop a skill, volunteering is a great way to do that if you can find the right role - your local CVS can help you find something specific if you are struggling to find something.

3. Don't be afraid to try different things, especially if you don't really know what it is you want to do.

4. Get training if it's offered. Some volunteering opportunities (I'm thinking Samaritans here) have a compulsory training course that you must complete. Others may offer regular but not compulsory sessions. Even if it's optional, it will benefit you and the organisation you're volunteering for to attend some training, even if it means taking a little time out. Usually, the organisation will pay for your travel so don't worry about being out of pocket. Even if there is not structured training on offer, ask if someone can show you what to do if you're not feeling confident.

5. Don't be afraid to admit if you've bitten off more than you can chew. This is one aspect of volunteering that, as a manager of volunteers, I struggle with regularly - people take on something they can't (or don't want to) do so instead of telling someone or asking for help, they just go silent, do nothing or very little and cause no end of problems. Be honest with yourself - and if it's not working out, ask for help, there is no shame in that. Nor is walking away if you really can't do it. People will appreciate your honesty. No-one is indispensable. No-one.

6. Don't be a martyr. Don't take on lots of different tasks or roles because it looks like there is no-one else to do them and sigh about how there is no-one else to do them. I have known at least one person who had multiple roles who ended up dropping them all because it was negatively affecting their relationship. They believed that there was no-one else to do those roles but there are now several people are doing the things they were doing alone before. If it becomes too much and is affecting your health or well-being, it's probably not the role for you. Be honest with yourself, and with others.

7. Don't allow yourself to be treated as a second class citizen. Employees are not a better class of worker - they are paid for what they do, volunteers do it for nothing. You're amazing. Employees are usually there to help you. Tell them what you need and they will usually do their best to provide that, within limits of course, because charities are not awash with money. Don't be afraid to give constructive feedback if you are encountering problems with what you do.

8. Understand your role. Being a volunteer doesn't mean you don't have responsibilities - some voluntary positions come with a lot of responsibility indeed. If you have a responsibility, do your best to fulfill them and just like at work, do let someone know if you can't, for whatever reason.

9. Have fun! Volunteering is something you do in your spare time so it'll feel all the more rewarding if you enjoy it. If you have meetings, make them fun whilst getting the business down. This usually involves cake. Or wine. Or both.

10. Just do it! You have nothing to lose. And if it doesn't work out, just try something else. As I said before, it can be extremely rewarding and improve both your skills and confidence. And you might even enjoy it too.

Good luck!
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