Successful volunteer work depends on focused effort


Two separate conversations in the past few months remind me of an important, but often forgotten lesson.

Speaking with a friend a couple of weeks ago, I was surprised to find that this former Peace Corps volunteer had not been involved in volunteer work for years. He explained that there were so many organizations he wanted to help, he found himself in a classic case of paralysis by analysis.

My other conversation was with a bank executive who, along with his family, was involved with more charities than you could count on your fingers and toes. He complained throughout lunch about the family's lack of enjoyment and his fear that they were beginning to lose some of their effectiveness as volunteers.

These two conversations brought home a lesson we usually learn early in life, but often forget: It is important to focus your efforts if you want to be successful. As a child, my fourth-grade teacher told us repeatedly: "You can do anything you want, but not everything."

Volunteering, even today, offers an opportunity to break away from the impossibly frenetic pace of our lives. Since charities suffer from perennial shortages of volunteers, more and more organizations bend over backward to accommodate these precious resources.

Volunteering frequently offers a stable environment within which volunteer can weather the storms of corporate downsizings, changes in marital status and a host of other pitfalls of modern life.

Some of the most effective volunteers I know have been regulars at the charity of their choice for more than a decade. They steadily climb the organization's learning curve, often becoming unpaid staff in the most responsible use of the term. Paid and volunteer staff come to these volunteers for counsel.

Focusing one's volunteering is an exercise in self-discipline. Every volunteer ought to ask herself at the beginning of the experience why she is volunteering. Then, every few months, she should examine whether or not her initial expectations are being met. If not, there should be some serious soul-searching to determine ways to help bring the experience in line with expectations.

In some cases, such an examination will result in changes within the volunteer. In other cases, a frank discussion with the volunteer supervisor will help put the experience back on track.

For a family, choosing a group to volunteer for offers an uncommon opportunity for family dialogue and problem-solving. If a family wishes to volunteer -- and every family should -- then a family meeting is in order.

The time constraints on the family and other realities of everyday life, such as sheer exhaustion from running the kids all over town, should form the basis for such a discussion.

Find out what the children feel passionate about. Are they concerned about the environment? Would they like to work with animals? Is your teen-ager concerned about world peace?

Help the children understand that they can make a difference. "Think globally, act locally" is a marvelous concept for young people to internalize, whether working to eliminate hunger or helping the environment. But children also need to understand that every choice they make has consequences. Time taken up by volunteering may mean less time for Saturday morning cartoons. And, a commitment to volunteering helps children to understand that the experience should be played out until the results of their focused efforts are clear.

In the end, family members will see their efforts bear fruit after they are in a relationship with the organization and its clientele for a few months. During this time it's a good idea to resist demands on one's time from other worthy causes, until you can determine whether your volunteering is beneficial to the organization and fulfilling to you. Focusing one's efforts invariably increases the quality of the experience for everyone.

(Lester A. Picker is a philanthropy consultant. Write to him at 71 Bathon Circle, Elkton, Md., 21921; [410] 392-3160.)

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