Five people sit in chairs holding microphones facing an audience. Jen is on the far right looking at the person speaking at the moment.

9 Reflections on Volunteerism

Today marks an ending for me. While we as a society are great about celebrating beginnings (weddings, births, new jobs, new home, etc.), we aren’t so great at marking the end of something. Even graduations are focused on what comes next, rather than a pause to reflect, a celebration of what was, or perhaps even a time to grieve what is being lost–even if the loss is by choice.

Today’s ending is a shift in my volunteerism. I’ve been on the Tufts University Alumni Council for 13+ years, and I still will be next year! But, I will not serve in a leadership capacity as I am ending my tenure on two committees that have been a deep investment of my time, energy, patience, passion, and relationships the past few years, and which have followed from other significant leadership roles that led to these. This shift is pretty insignificant in the scheme of things, but the scheme of things is irrelevant: this is a big deal for me.

When I commit to something, I commit fully. In friendships, love, work, health, and volunteerism, I’m all in. These roles have meant that I spend a significant amount of time each week working on and losing sleep over all of the moving pieces–and I don’t regret that for a minute. But, it also means I’ve been so deeply embedded in Council work for so long that I have rarely been able to step back and think about what I’m learning and what it means. I’ve grown and evolved a lot in 13+ years, and my volunteerism through the Council has been one of the few constants as so much else in life has changed.

When I asked my networks on social media for ideas of how to mark endings, there were many terrific ideas (shared on and offline). There were a lot of “burn something!” recommendations, which I will do with a smudge stick in my office when the moment is right. There were recommendations of movement, like long walks and dancing, for physical release and dedicated space, which I honored by going back to the gym with my newfound time. There were also recommendations to reflect and to write, and to share it or not share it. What follows are 9 reflections on volunteerism (all volunteerism, not just my Council experience) that I wanted to share publicly, which accompany several more reflections that I will keep for myself.

  1. You really have to love what you do and how you are doing it to stay engaged as a volunteer year after year. Life is too short to add negative stress around something you don’t need to do. Over the years, I’ve evolved my service with the Council and other volunteer engagements so that it comes from a position of genuine interest in what I spend my time on and who I spend it with. When you love what you’re doing, it shows; it makes a difference in how you give and how you engage others in giving with you. When that spark dies out or blows another direction, it’s important to listen to that.
  2. Volunteer commitments nearly always offer learning, insights, and relationships that are useful in other aspects of life. I am a professional fundraiser now, but I really started my fundraising career engaging young alumni in giving back to the university and helping to launch #TuftsGivingTuesday. (Well, I suppose I started with a single major gift from Sidney Frank, but that’s another story!) I also have deepened my experience in volunteer management, change management, strategic planning, campaign and crowdfunding leadership, event planning, anti-racism activism, communications, governance, and management through service, all of which matter significantly in my work and life.
  3. Volunteerism is what you make of it. Most organizations–including higher ed–aren’t fully staffed up with a top priority on volunteer management, or are just over capacity even when it is a top priority. There may be structures in place for volunteerism that work for you, but you also may not find your volunteer home right away. I’ve found that conversations with other volunteers and with staff about my interests and skills have helped me land fulfilling volunteer roles that meet my needs and those of the organizations I volunteer with. Sometimes, they’re formal roles (e.g. co-chairing a committee), but other times, they’re less formal (e.g. providing guidance on messaging that will go out to a large audience segment). By volunteering in dialogue, you maximize your own return on investment, and theirs. However…
  4. …being able to make your own volunteer experience is indicative of privilege and dominant culture. I have directly witnessed and also heard many accounts of volunteers who feel like their passions, skills, and interests are tamped down, and worse, that volunteer contexts are still replete with racism, ageism, sexism, ableism, and classism. The right to comfort and fear of conflict, urgency, fear, and individualism are some of the many aspects of dominant culture that are rampant in most organizations, which extends to the volunteer experience and disproportionately affects marginalized identities. I’m not philosophizing–this is both my lived experience and a reflection of the realities of so many volunteers I’ve shared space with over the years. If you are a volunteer with relative privilege, you have a lot of power to improve the volunteer experience for those who do not; your voice matters.
  5. Volunteerism takes energy, and energy does not come in limitless supply. It’s important to set boundaries on what you will and will not do, when, and how, and to update those boundaries as you need. It’s ok to not be available for calls at all hours, and to say no to additional tasks that you can’t commit to. It’s ok to go off video for a board meeting if you’re zoomed out, or to opt out of meetings with individuals who do not engage with you respectfully. Yes–be accountable to and energized about the volunteerism you signed up for, but if something is not working for you, it’s better to make adjustments than to compromise what you need to be successful over and over.
  6. Building trust takes time, and is an essential investment for long-term volunteerism. Trust has allowed me to lead, engage in challenging conversations, and articulate my vision in various contexts over the years, but it never came right away. In fact, I think there’s often a caution around new volunteers who come in with big questions and ideas without knowing the full context of what has come before. As a volunteer, it’s important to recognize that your fresh perspectives, ideas, and energy may be amazing, but you need to first invest in building relationships and learning how things are done (and why) before you can propose change. You don’t want to erase dedicated thinking and action that has come before, but rather build forward, together.
  7. It’s always nice to find fulfillment in formal volunteerism, but I’ve increasingly found joy and impact in completely informal volunteerism. I regularly provide mentorship, a strategic sounding board, hard skills, connections, and one-off rolled-up sleeves to people and organizations in my network, and I love it. One of my superpowers is being able to unstick people and problems with authenticity and love, and I find myself using this superpower more in informal settings. Why? Organizational structures and dynamics don’t always allow for directness–these one-off support mechanisms suddenly have to follow a certain trope and embedded people politics. This is important to playing the long-game and building collective understanding, but in other ways limits the potential for impact.
  8. Volunteers–formal and informal–matter in big ways–both visible and invisible. They have a lot of power to influence staff perspectives, make meaningful connections with other volunteers, and positively impact the organization’s stakeholders. Each tier of impact can have ripple effects. One person on a committee I co-lead shared that she is learning more about running effective meetings from our committee. An organization whose advisory board I helped to develop now has all new leadership with dynamic skills. A client I used to volunteer as an advocate for has experienced greater stability in recent years. Someone I informally coach is taking important career steps. An organization that I’m exploring volunteerism with is asking new questions about its funding sources after a single conversation. These impacts are not because of me, but my role as a volunteer investing in people and communities that I care about plays a role in what’s to come.
  9. Giving back feels good. It’s clichĂ© and perhaps selfish (learning: a word that can be a good thing!), but those endorphins and seratonin that come with volunteerism are great. As someone with a worldview centered around interconnectivity and community, I seek out volunteer roles that directly reflect this…and it feels good. It feeds my needs and also contributes to impacts I care about. Everyone has different skills, issue areas, and communities they care about, and a good volunteerism fit where you’re applying those skills in spaces you’re passionate about will feel good. Do it for health! And if it stops feeling good, that’s usually a sign to interrogate why.

These reflections are part of a longer list that I’m keeping for myself. That longer list celebrates ways I’ve grown, recognizes missteps and learnings, and high-fives the things I’m most proud of. I aim to build that list more fully in the coming month, which I am declaring a volunteering-free month! This will allow me the time and space to properly reflect, and to reclaim some of my time and energy before deciding how to newly spend it.

Meanwhile, I’m full of deep gratitude for a lifetime of volunteerism, and particularly the Council roles I’m today saying goodbye to. There’s so much that I’ll carry with me from these experiences into continued and new volunteering and life adventures. And, I’m proud to have left my mark in big and small ways. One thing I’ve learned is that we have the most holistic sense of our own impact, our own learning, our own experiences–nobody else. That means that nobody else will ever be able to fully reflect those impacts, learnings, and experiences back to us–we have to do it ourselves, and we owe it to ourselves to do so. That’s what it means to mark an ending.

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