Volunteering: The Slacker's Guide to Contributing a Little

When I think of volunteering, I think of people who sign up for the Peace Corps.
And then I feel shitty about myself.

If you are someone with any spare time, then you probably are either already volunteering or feeling guilty as hell that you're not.

And note: if you lack spare time not because of work and family demands, but because you can't drag your butt away from the Netflix queue after you belatedly discover 3 gripping hilarious brilliantly written tv shows 5-8 seasons after they have begun, and you absolutely MUST catch up with them all, as soon as possible, then you probably feel guilty too.

For some people, volunteering is second nature: you do it constantly, generously, both when it is easy and when it is not. It is part of who you are as a person. You people can probably only scratch your heads in perplexity at those of us who sit on the sidelines and tend not to contribute.

Ever visited MessyMimi's blog?  She rescues orphan kitties and raises them (sometimes mind-boggling enormous numbers of kitties), and does all kinds of other great stuff, and she does it like "of course, who wouldn't!" without any bitching or whining as would be the case if I were doing it.

So yeah, this post is not aimed at you wonderful folks--though of course we Volunteering-Impaired-Slackers will certainly be grateful for any suggestions you have.

Because for others of us... it is not second nature. We may try, we sign up for things occasionally, but we either feel anxious or overwhelmed or bored or it's inconvenient and we start to dread it and there are so many other things we could be doing and so we make our excuses and wander away again.

All that stuff about how great you feel doing it?  Well, for us, as a rule, not so much.

So here are some 5 quick tips from an only Slightly Reformed Volunteer-Slacker as to how to either join the party, or at least stop feeling guilty about it.

1.  Find the Right Thing

Duh, right?  But this is harder than it sounds--especially if you know others who volunteer somewhere, and they ask you to help too and it seems like something you should want to do... nah, don't go that route if you know you'll just dread it.

You need a cause you really care about, and a role that doesn't sound unpleasant.  One site for finding volunteer opportunities is Volunteer Match, but there are tons more if you google. Or if you wander around your own town with an eye to where you might be of assistance.

For me, the perfect volunteer gig is working at "the pound" visiting the cats and kittens.

I like cats but can't, with our mobile lifestyle, have one.  I spend just a few hours a week petting and playing with kitties who may have spent days and days alone in their cage--and sure, busy staff members provide food and water and medical care, but they don't have much time for cuddling. There are a lot of cats, and not that many volunteers.

The county animal shelter is not a happy place, despite all the wonderful people who work there. It's in the nature of an underfunded public institution.  But the time I spend feels helpful. And really, petting cats is kind of a win/win for a cat-lover, right? What's not to like about hanging with friendly felines? Most of it is pretty darn pleasant.

2.  But Accept that Some of it Will Suck

If you are a Volunteering-Impaired Slacker, don't believe all the studies that make it sound as though you will feel so engaged and enriched and uplifted by your volunteer experience that you will achieve instant radiant happiness.

If you are an anxious person, you will likely be anxious about your role, however simple.

If you are easily bored, you will probably get antsy.

There will likely be rules and policies, some of them sensible and some of them stupid.

There is a Shelter Rule that all photos taken must be out of focus.
I swear.

There may be many days you won't feel like it even if it is the "perfect" volunteer opportunity.

Bottom line? Don't feel like there is something wrong with you if it feels a bit more like getting a good workout than going to a movie.  You feel better about yourself after a workout right? And you may even find moments of joy and satisfaction.

So yeah, this is to say that I'm writing this on Shelter Day and I don't particularly feel like going. Just like I generally don't feel like going to the gym even after all these years and mostly good experiences there.

But just like the gym, I magnify the downside of the pound: it's sad there, and I have other things that need doing, and there are always way more lonely cats than time. There is cat poop involved and insanely loud dogs barking in the background and you have to wash your hands 5,000 times to avoid spreading Dangerous Cat Diseases. Some of the cats can be mean little stinkers! (As my own beloved shy cat was herself whenever she was scared and confined somewhere, like the vet.) However, most of the cats are insanely affectionate and grateful...which then makes it really really hard to put them back in their cages again where they may languish for several days before anyone pays attention to them again.

But I will have many moments of contentment and be glad I went.  I know this, and so I put myself on autopilot just like I do going to the gym.

3.  Know Your Own Limits and be Prepared to be Kind of an Asshole About Defending Them

This is a challenge for black and white thinkers: better not to volunteer at all than to be seen as not contributing enough, right?

Well, you may know intellectually that's stupid. But be prepared to defend yourself against feeling like a lame volunteer for not doing more than whatever you signed on to do.

If you are a volunteering-slacker by nature, I can pretty much guarantee that anywhere you try to volunteer, there will be people who are doing way more than you.  If you find you love what you do and want to contribute more? Great!  But a volunteer who reliably does the minimum and refuses to do anything extra yet who hangs around for a really long time is, I would argue, more valuable than one who gets guilted into contributing more than feels comfortable and quits.

I am a really shitty volunteer at the pound--I'm only here half the year, I'm gone for holidays, and never help with anything "extra." I pretty much do my minimum and go home.  And you know what? I'm ok with that.

4.  Keep In Mind It May Help Your Health and Happiness 

According to a research compilation of 40 studies, volunteering is linked with improved health and happiness! Though as the researchers pointed out, it could be that happy healthy people are more likely to volunteer in the first place. That would not particularly surprise me. As I said, for some of us the "happiness" is not instantaneous.

I think for me though, noticing the moments when I'm really glad I'm there, and saying goodbye to that nagging "I'm not volunteering, OMG do I suck" feeling and boosting my self-esteem... that's gotta be healthy, right?

5. Be OK with Just Writing a Big Check

I kinda suspect that the hands on thing is over-hyped in terms of helpfulness to worthy causes.

Sure, it's great to knit a cap for a chemo patient or pet a cat or hand out a hot meal, yet making a financial contribution that can help hundreds of cancer patients or abandoned cats or hungry people is not an inferior way to contribute!  I believe most charities are very, very grateful for financial contributions, and many people do not have the time nor the inclination to get down in the trenches.

I say if you write a big enough check, you can absolve yourself of any guilt and get back to that Netflix queue.

How about you guys, how do you feel about volunteering?

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