How to be a happy volunteer

Think carefully before you volunteer again so you are the happy and successful volunteer you were meant to be.

Jennifer Weichel and her family volunteering at the Genesee County Fair. Left to right: Larry, Jack, Jennifer and Andrew Weichel. Photo by Ken Turland.
Jennifer Weichel and her family volunteering at the Genesee County Fair. Left to right: Larry, Jack, Jennifer and Andrew Weichel. Photo by Ken Turland.

Someone recently asked me if I volunteered. Obviously, it was someone that doesn’t know me. The answer is simple: Yes I volunteer, and most of the time I enjoy it. The times I don’t enjoy it I ask myself why, and then I consider my answer carefully so I am honest with myself.

The reasons we sometimes don’t enjoy a volunteer experience vary, but when we look at these reasons, we can best identify how to rectify them and be more successful the next time we volunteer. We might even be able to help improve the system for the next set of volunteers that come through.

Let’s take a look at some of the most common reasons people are unsatisfied when volunteering.

The right fit. Did you ever try putting a square peg in a round hole? Sometimes we do that with volunteers or we do it to ourselves. We volunteer for a role that is not the right fit or we place a volunteer in a role that just isn’t a good fit. I admit there are just a few things in this world I am not good at and therefore I should not volunteer to do them; if I do, we will probably both be disappointed. Therefore I try to evaluate the skills needed for a job before I volunteer to see if I am a good fit. If the answer is no, I am still a good person, just not the right one for the job.

Bad days, hours or moods happen. Was it a bad day or hour? Face it, we all wake up on the wrong side of the bed at times or might have just been in a bad mood. Here is a piece of advice for those moments: When you can’t be nice or neutral, you should probably wait to interact with others. Just think how this advice could change your interactions.

Preparation. Did I receive adequate training for the task, position or role? Many times, volunteers arrive and we just put them to work. Organizations and fellow volunteers need to be sure adequate training is provided for volunteers.

Don’t enjoy it. Volunteering to do something you do not enjoy or signing up at a time that is not your peak hour can make your volunteer experience unenjoyable. I am not a morning person, so I will probably not sign up for the 6 a.m. shift (if I do, it might be a bit rough for me to be cheery). But ask me to be there at 10 a.m. or 6 p.m. and I will be there to smile and greet people. Also, consider the task you will be doing. If you want me to rake leaves I’m out, but I will gladly clerk an auction to support the organization. People care about what they are doing and when they are doing it.

Out of your comfort zone. While it is good to stretch yourself, consider your limits as well. Volunteering is a great way to learn new skills and get out of your comfort zone, but don’t jump off the deep end; most divers learned to swim first. Take small steps to get to the bigger goals you have for volunteering; you don’t need to be volunteer of the year in your first year.

Expectations and reality don’t match. I thought I was going to be doing XYZ but instead I was doing 123; I clearly misunderstood the volunteer position or maybe I was just in a hurry to get my name on the sheet and get done. Did I read the role description or was one even provided? Ask for clarity when you are not sure what the role might entail so you are not disappointed, frustrated or bored.

Overwhelmed. I had no clue there was so much to the position. We all know this has happened to a volunteer or two. No one knows what really needs to be done until they have lived it. The other part of overwhelmed is that life is happening around us even when we are volunteering and sometimes that gets in the way of us volunteering or enjoying the experience.

Volunteering should make you feel good. If it doesn’t, ask yourself why? The reasons may vary and sometimes we can control or make choices to help prevent some of these frustrations. The choices you make matter and so does your time as a volunteer; the organization you are volunteering for wants you to be successful and happy as a volunteer.

Think carefully before you volunteer so you are the happy and successful volunteer you were meant to be. Ask questions when you sign up to be a volunteer and remember that sometimes you need to try on more than one role to find the best fit.

Michigan State University Extension offers individuals of all ages the opportunity to volunteer with a variety of projects in a number of roles. These roles may take you to a garden plot, preschool, senior center, local river, board room, camp, MSU or the Kettunen Center. Volunteering with MSU Extension allows you to volunteer with friends, families and neighbors. To find out more about opportunities near you, contact your local MSU Extension office.

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