I love a good cause, I really do. Over the past 15 or so years I’ve realized that I am much less driven by money than I thought – and maybe than I should be. My experience with volunteer work has given me great perspective on how this option can help your sanity in the short term and career in the long run.
A Change of Direction
When I met my husband, then an Air Force officer, I was employed full-time in scientific research. It was a great job, in Las Vegas, and paid well. When we decided that our relationship was heading towards marriage, I realized that maintaining a scientific career, in my specialized field of electrochemistry, was going to be almost impossible. I became a self-employed technical headhunter for a while and called it a day when our son was 2 or so, after he received an autism diagnosis. I needed to focus on his needs rather than my own.
I had volunteered for various things whilst in college – badminton captain (don’t laugh Americans – it’s a real sport everywhere else in the world), boat club erg comp organizer, MCR treasurer etc… Then I found myself in a military world of autism advocacy.
Whilst working to help my son, I read so much information and met some great people online – social media really was my village, and I gained some friends that I am still close with now. I also learned a lot about myself. I learned that I needed to believe in what I was doing – that, sadly, for my bank balance, I am not motivated by money. I do firmly believe though that volunteer work should not *just* be about the organization that is benefitting from your time.
It’s about learning and growing along the way – whether you are acquiring new skills, or making contacts, or learning about a subject of interest to your family.
I’ll give you an example –
Social Media Skills
Whilst volunteering with a military organization that advocates for its families with children with special needs (American Military Families Autism Support – AMFAS) I ran their Facebook page – back when Facebook was only just starting to show its potential in advocacy and small business. I learned about content, how to present an organization to be as inclusive as possible and that variety and engagement matter. Those skills, honed over several years of managing information and resources for families under incredible stress now translates into other work I’ve done for a variety of organizations, both paid and volunteer. Social media skills are in demand and many companies have social media coordinators. I also get to use those social media skills now for my own business.
Volunteer Work has Value
So – just because I wasn’t paid for the volunteer work, it doesn’t mean that someone isn’t willing to pay for the skills I developed whilst doing it.
Volunteer work can be used to keep your skills current, to learn new skills, to connect with people, to give to an organization you believe in. All of this whilst being able to limit your involvement and time commitment to a level that is compatible with your family situation. It can also lead to paid employment with the organization you’re helping. This makes it a great solution for those who are stay at home parents, or military spouses, for example.
When to Stop Volunteering
Volunteer work has a great many benefits, both personally and professionally, but there are also downsides. When someone is both willing and competent, organizations can take advantage. It may not be intentional, but, the role of a volunteer can be gradually expanded or the time commitment goes beyond that would normally be expected. The role becomes something more comparable to that of a paid employee.
So, when you do stop? When you feel you’re being underappreciated, or being taken advantage of. If a similar (or lesser) role within the organization is being performed by someone who is being paid for that, you are at your point to dial back or stop.
Maybe your volunteer work has now expanded to a time commitment where you no longer set the hours? Instead, you’re devoting time that should be for your family to that organization. That would be a great time to say “I am so sorry, but I can’t keep up this level of time commitment, I need to be more disciplined with my time”. It can be hard to pull back, especially when you might love the work you are doing, but, it’s important to set boundaries too. A lack of boundaries can hurt your self-worth.
Where to Find Volunteer Work
So – where can you find volunteer work?
First – think about the type of work you enjoy. Admin work? Event planning? Fund raising? There are always opportunities to do these.
Second – are you looking to keep skills fresh, or learn new skills in preparation for a return to the workplace after children are in school?
Third – look in places that are convenient and relevant to your life – this means maybe volunteer at or near your child’s school, or for work that is done remotely/online.
Some great examples –
Do you like animals? Volunteer at the local humane society, or a rescue shelter. This could be a great option if you are a vet tech, or would like to be – or just love animals.
Considering teaching? Volunteer at your child’s school – work in the library, or help with reading groups. Maybe volunteer at your church’s youth group?
Have a medically fragile or special needs child? Volunteer with a local support group – fundraise, event planning, social media and helping with in person support can be great experiences. Serve on your school district special needs / education committee.