Adventures in (Not) Volunteering

As an AmeriCorps VISTA service member, my next year of employment is one extended volunteer experience.  Despite the fact that 40 hours of my week is spent serving, I went looking for an opportunity to use my undergraduate degree, Environmental Studies, to flex my green(ish) muscles.  Little did I know, finding a volunteer opportunity would be more difficult than I had imagined!

The first organization with which I made contact worked with youth and environmental issues, and mentioned a possible “virtual mentorship” that involved online, environmental advising of youth.  While in-person contact with youth was more what I was searching for, I thought I’d contact the organization anyway to try to learn more about their opportunities.  There was no contact information for a volunteer manager, so I completed the online contact form with my information and explained my interest in the program.  Because I didn’t want to overwhelm myself with commitments, I contacted only this organization.  Days and then a week and a half passed, and I had heard nothing.  Because I wasn’t overly excited about the actual position, I wasn’t persistent about making contact with someone from the organization, but was still surprised I was (seemingly) ignored.

Annoyed but not undeterred, I made another attempt, hoping this time for success!  Referred by a friend to an organization that works with youth, food, and agriculture, I was optimistic that this time things would work out.  My focus within my major was food and agriculture, so that plus the hands-on aspect of this possible position was much more attractive to me than any sort of virtual service, anyway.  I downloaded the volunteer application and spent a fair amount of time working on it and describing my previous experience and interests.  After it was completed I was a bit guiltily proud of myself; working in volunteer management has really made me appreciate complete, thorough applications!  I emailed the form to the designated party and waited for a response.  Miraculously, I had a response within 24 hours!  I was told I would be added to a list of volunteers and would soon receive an email listing all of the fall volunteer opportunities.  I was unsure what “soon” meant, so after four days I sent an email thanking them for getting back to me and reiterating my interest.  Then, when everything seemed to be aligning – I had found an opportunity that fit perfectly with my interests, a human was responding to me – the contact stopped!  I received neither a list of the fall volunteer opportunities nor a follow-up email.  As I was writing this I was struck with anxiety that the email had ended up in my spam folder and I had completely missed it.  But, unfortunately, nothing.  It’s been a month since I sent my check-in email, and in the interim I was too frustrated to contact them again, although I probably should have.

Or maybe I shouldn’t have contacted them?  It’s unclear how much responsibility prospective volunteers and host organizations each have when developing a service relationship, and this has proven to be quite an issue for me.  After taking the time to complete an application, much more time than many volunteers take when filling out applications for the organization I work with, I felt quite slighted when I didn’t receive any contact.  And while my interests aligned almost exactly with the programming, the thought of applying again makes me feel silly and almost ashamed despite my passion for the topic.  I understand that many organizations have limited capacity to manage volunteers, but if volunteers are needed and valued, and interested, dedicated volunteers are available, the organization should create structural support for recruitment and management.

My successive blog posts will chronicle my attempts to volunteer, successful or not, and will reflect my experiences along the way.  I will also act as an (undercover!) potential volunteer at organizations to test the management at a range of organizations and report back.  It should be an espionage- and service-filledVISTAyear!

Kelsea Dombrovski

Neighborhood Resource Coordinator

Minnesota Children’s Museum

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One Response to Adventures in (Not) Volunteering

  1. Colleen O says:

    Great thoughts. I, too, have sometimes had trouble connecting with volunteer opportunities despite my being a professional volunteer manager by day. For instance:

    I was told to fill out the online form to express my interest but no one ever responded to me.

    I was asked to fill out a long application before being told what opportunities were available. Once I was even asked to pay an application/screening fee–but I still didn’t know what I’d be doing as a volunteer!

    I was told that the first step to volunteering is to attend a tour. At the tour, they told us that they didn’t really need more volunteers for the roles that I had inquired about.

    I keep these experiences in mind as I shape my own volunteer intake process. I try to respond to all inquiries promptly. I do my best to give really clear information along the way about opportunities, scheduling, screening process, etc. When I can’t offer what a volunteer is looking for, I tell them about alternative opportunities and/or point them to an organization that better fits their interests.

    We wouldn’t be doing this work if not for the incredible community members who eagerly share their time. That’s a gift I don’t want to squander. I place the burden on me, not the volunteer, to develop a service relationship. As long as volunteers are eager, I am responsible for guiding them through what may be a new or unfamiliar process.

    It took me some time and patience, but I eventually found some great volunteer roles where I was welcomed and supported. I hope you’ll find the same. I look forward to reading more about your experiences along the way!

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