(Published on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/article/20141115034738-3616140-four-things-i-learnt-as-a-volunteer and on Medium / https://medium.com/@tathagatvarma)
I have been a passionate volunteer since last 20+ years. During this time, I have had wonderful opportunities of volunteering with global organizations such as IEEE,ACM, PMI and various Agile community groups like AgileIndia, while also had opportunities to volunteer with small, but not unimportant, causes, such as my apartment association and my community social. Why, I even volunteered to spend 16 months in icy continent of Antarctica — something no one in their right senses would ever do! (and here is the TEDx talk I delivered on it.)
While some experiences lasted longer (and better) than others, all of them left me with invaluable learnings. In this blog post, I call out my favorite learnings:
Volunteer so you can learn. I have seen people wanting to volunteer because they believe they are ‘experts’, and hence they will be a great asset to the lesser volunteers and the community at large. They often want to perch themselves atop a tall pedestal and ‘utilize’ their knowledge by kind of ‘guiding’ others. However, such self-serving and rather condescending thinking could be no further from truth. The best volunteers actively seek opportunities that challenge and stretch them to wade through uncharted waters, often being humbled in that process. I was recently mentoring a project team bring their startup idea to life. While the final result was that they won the best team award (and as a consolation for my efforts, I won the best mentor award), I felt I learnt more from my students and in the process of mentoring them then they probably learnt from me. No doubt, the knowledge and skills you have will eventually serve the community, but the most satisfying engagements will be where you get challenged to learn something new.
Volunteerism is really solo work. Like every other human endeavor, a volunteer team starts with much fanfare and grand promises. After the launch party is over, and the dust has settled down, and it’s time for some real action, you find that all those faces with beaming smiles from the launch party pics have kind of disappeared somewhere! The real work is (almost always) done by just 2–3 people. This ‘social loafing’ is universal, and I have seen it irrespective of educational level or professional seniority of volunteers. When you sign up to be volunteer, remember, you are literally in it alone — whatever anyone tells you! If someone comes along, be grateful, but don’t feel grumpy when you are doing the heavy lifting alone. During one of my community tenures, I found myself editing our community magazines. There were hardly any contributors to the magazine, and me and my family discovered that we all had a secret writer inside us waiting to come out and dazzle the world! If you are lucky, you will be part of a great team where people cheer and help each other out. However, don’t let that be a pre-condition or a naive assumption on your part lest you be disappointed right at the start.
Not all volunteers are the same. Most of us get it totally wrong because most of us don’t even know it, let alone understand it. I learnt that my volunteer style was (rather, is) that of an individual volunteer (or “I.V.” — a comical take on the more common corporate brethren Individual Contributor, or “I.C”) who likes to work at the back away from limelight. I would even call myself as a freelancer volunteer — someone who really wants highest level of autonomy even as a volunteer! During such times, I truly enjoyed what I was doing, but whenever I was made either a member of ‘management committee’ or the Chair myself, my motivation came down rapidly, and it eventually ended up in a near-disaster. I now have no shame in telling others that I am more comfortable being a lowly volunteer than a leader of volunteers. Whatever your style is, recognize it and make sure you are aligned to that. No point killing yourself doing something you are not, and in this case, making that mistake as a volunteer!
Volunteer is more than the job. This is often taken for granted, and yet, you don’t realize it till it hits you. A few years back, I was a visiting faculty for an EMBA program. The ‘students’ were working professionals who would spend the whole day at work and then drive from work through the rush-hour traffic every single day! I used to have classes on one of the weekdays. There were days when I wan’t well, and ran 102F fever and would take sick leave from work, but would still go and teach them three hours in the evenings! Similarly, when I volunteered to be part of the Indian Scientific Expedition to Antarctica, I volunteered as Computer Scientist but had to do all kinds of community work, including cleaning toilets. So, once you volunteer, that’s it — you lose the right to crib about it — if there’s an issue, fix it! If that unsettles you, get out of it ASAP. No point shortchanging the community that is expecting to see your efforts when you are clearly uncomfortable in honoring your commitment. We all are guaranteed at least a second chance of redemption, so maybe you will also get to make up for the lost opportunity someday…
I am sure there are many many important things to learn, but these are my top four. And yes, I can’t wait to learn some more…
Have you been a volunteer, or have considered being one?