September often comes with a tidal wave of requests for your time. Volunteering as a parent or with your family demonstrates to your children the importance of being a team and giving back. Helping others can provide a sense of purpose and meaningful activity. In schools, research shows that parent and community engagement helps boost student achievement and produce graduates who are prepared to be productive, globally competitive citizens. When you volunteer you are a part of something bigger than yourself and play a key role in keeping our democratic society moving.
Throughout the phases of parenting, your volunteer availability and style may change. Before you jump in this fall consider the following.
Finding Your Volunteer Style
Understanding your motivations for volunteering is essential to finding the right volunteer opportunity and giving your best self. Consider the following styles:
Gracious Gatherer : You are inclusive in partnering with other volunteers. Your motivation is to get the task done while making others feel a part of something bigger and giving them a sense of belonging. You make a good committee or event chair and volunteer recruiter.
Effectiveness Challenge : While more is merrier, effectively managing more requires inviting others to the table only when you have clearly defined potential roles upfront.
Targeted Tasker : You are happy doing defined tasks as needed—mentoring, tutoring, serving meals, coaching, helping in a classroom. You have limited time but want to contribute meaningfully with a clear role description.
Effectiveness Challenge : If the needs of organization or role expand, you can be tempted to give more than you have time for and get burned out. You need to be clear on your availability upfront.
Creative Catalyst : You see creative possibilities for new activities, trips, special events, artwork, marketing, fundraising or volunteer roles. You often have a vision for event theme and décor.
Effectiveness Challenge : Be open to others' creative ideas. Creative visionaries are tempted to do it all alone or with only a few others, which can be perceived as exclusive.
Mission Mobilizer: You want to be involved in ways that clearly impact the mission of the organization. This could be providing a direct service, or participating on the board or in a planning position. You are altruistic with an eye on the bottom line. You like to see your effort having an “on the ground” impact as well as a strategic one.
Effectiveness Challenge : Not everyone sees the big picture as quickly as you do; you must be patient in helping others connect the dots.
Logistics Leader : You are analytical and can put systems in place and make sure supplies are obtained for an event or project to go well. You are happy to look at an opportunity and see what has to happen behind the scenes and just get it done.
Effectiveness Challenge : While you are effective, this job can be done in too much isolation and give you the reputation as controlling. Make sure you coordinate with others.
Technology Trainer : You are very adept online and with social media. You can contribute to training others and setting up online systems for volunteer and event sign-ups, Listserv and registrations.
Effectiveness Challenge : You become the only “go-to” person for all things technological. Make sure you recruit other tech savvy peers and/or train others.
Do it All Diva : You are at a place in your life where you have the flexibility, generosity, energy and commitment to take on many volunteer roles and contribute greatly. Your identity and sense of self is tied up in your volunteer positions.
Effectiveness Challenge : You may come out of a traditional volunteering ethic and become frustrated that others are not giving as much as you are. Understand that today's parents are from many different cultures where giving back happens in extended families and their own communities, while others are sandwiched between childrearing and eldercare and working full-time. You will have more realistic expectations of others and explore new ways to engage these prospective volunteers.
Making Volunteering Work for You
Take a Reflective First Step
More and more parents are struggling with requests for their time while they are just trying to make ends meet at home and give attention to their own families. Assessing how much you have to give depends on the changing needs of your children’s development in each phase of parenting.
New Parents: Give Yourselves a Break
Overwhelmed in the early stages of parenting with infants and toddlers whose daily needs can be draining and overwhelming, volunteering may be an option only in organizations that invite families and toddlers to be a part of a project. A challenge many young parents face, particularly those who are new to an area or have recently taken some time off from their career, is that while volunteering might ease their isolation, it is not always feasible without local family or extended support systems nearby.
Beth Newman, director at St. Luke’s Preschool in Silver Spring, encourages parents to take time for their own needs while their children are in preschool. She says, “First-time parents don’t always realize they are going to be asked to volunteer for the next 8 to 12 years at their children’s school, sports, scouts or other activities. While their young children’s needs are constant, rather than volunteering in the classroom, we encourage parents with flexibility to socialize over coffee or use the time to take care of work commitments.” Newman also acknowledges that her school, elementary schools and nonprofits have to be flexible in their visions for engaging volunteers. Most are working full- or part-time, and unless they have support systems locally, being present as an “onsite volunteer” is not feasible. Fortunately, technology can bridge that gap and most organization work can be done online.
Some other low-key volunteer options for parents with young children include working in nursery co-ops; joining knitting circles that create products for infants, soldiers or patients; writing/editing an organization’s newsletters; coordinating logistics for specific outings; or serving meals where young children can help or have an activity to keep them busy.
A Positive Volunteer Experience
Disappointing volunteer experiences and burnout often stem from not having clear expectations and respectful boundaries of role and time commitment. Prior to committing ask yourself the following:
What is the maximum time commitment you can give without feeling pulled from your family and work priorities? Be honest with yourself―sometimes the volunteer opportunity is so appealing you can overcommit. Be clear about specific hours and find a volunteer role that fits.
What is it about the mission of an organization or cause that interests you most? Look at opportunities in those areas.
What are your talents, and what sparks your creativity? Review skill requirements of volunteer roles to find the right fit. Get a written role description or help create one before signing on.
What are the norms and expectations of the institution regarding volunteering? Is it a mandated requirement or valued as a contribution? In which setting are you more likely to give back, and which builds community?
Is there an upfront cost to the volunteer opportunity, in terms of child care, gas, transportation, training or materials? Can the organization provide job-related resources and liability coverage (if role requires it) for you to complete volunteer task successfully?
Is volunteer scheduling and opportunity listings accessible and easy to sign up for? Does the organization have an online system, website and email reminders?
Many organizations have limited resources and are desperate for volunteer help. Being upfront about what you need to be an effective volunteer will help organizations redefine how they engage the time-strapped volunteers of today. The organizations will also benefit from a focused and enthusiastic volunteer and be able to use your talents where essential. Volunteer where staff and others value you. Answering the questions above is essential to ensure you will give quality work and receive a sense of satisfaction.
Mary Phillips is a writer, nonprofit management consultant and gardener. In 2009, she launched The Abundant Backyard to encourage individuals and families engaged in nature, sustainable gardening and local heritage to develop a lifetime commitment to protecting our region's natural resources. She lives in Silver Spring with her husband and two sons. theabundantbackyard.com
By Mary Phillips Quinn