Volunteering needs full commitment

Whether it’s in the workplace or your personal life, being a volunteer can be immensely rewarding. And although it can seem that the altruistic intent puts the focus on helping others, volunteering also provides the volunteer with lots of benefits. It can be a way to gain new skills or try out a new activity, and helping others can be deeply fulfilling experience that’s positive for your wellbeing. It can also give you a reputation of being a kind, helpful person – regardless of whether you’re actually helping.

OK, maybe that last point is a bit cynical. My view might be biased based on recent experiences with a volunteer committee whose responses to criticism or requests for action have felt dismissive at times, as if to say: ‘You’ve no right to complain, you’re not a volunteer.’ But just because a volunteering role might be unpaid, does not mean it comes without responsibility or accountability. Quite the opposite – this is what makes volunteering such a valuable and respected endeavour.

It can be difficult to say no when someone asks you to volunteer. If you’ve benefited from help in the past, you might feel a need to ‘pay it forward’. In the workplace, saying no can feel like you’re letting your colleagues down, particularly if you know that one of them may end up overburdened as a result. This pressure adds up until supposedly voluntary work might start to look obligatory. And yet, as has long been discussed in the context of the mentoring, committee participation and other service work performed by academics, such activities are largely overlooked when hiring and promotion decisions are made.

So next time you’re looking for a volunteer, make sure you give them enough time to consider the opportunity in depth – and don’t get offended if they turn it down. And before volunteering for something yourself, think about what your motivation is for taking it on. It’s fine if you’re only in it for what you might gain for yourself – the people you’re helping won’t judge you by your levels of altruism, but by how well you do the task. Then think about whether you have the time to do it. What might you have to give up to commit to volunteering? How will this affect your mental health?

Even if something gets left undone because you either couldn’t or didn’t want to volunteer, you shouldn’t feel guilty. Declining to take part in an activity can show those asking for help that they need to take a new approach. Perhaps they shouldn’t have to rely on voluntary labour, and a separate (paid!) role needs to be introduced to cover the work. Or perhaps more needs to be done to widen the pool of volunteers, and to make sure that helpers receive better support, incentives and rewards.