Why I volunteer

Gifts awaiting sorting and disbursement at the Johnson County Christmas Bureau

From a distance, my life might look a little, well, unmanageable.

I mostly take care of my kids all day, and then work in the evenings–communicating with students, planning lessons, reading about nonprofits and about social policy, working for some of my nonprofit clients, writing.

And, whenever I can (which, in the past couple of months, hasn’t been as often as I would like), I volunteer.

I was thinking about these volunteer roles recently when talking with some students, some of whom were sharing that their volunteer experiences were the only occasions on which they had really had a chance to feel a little bit like social workers, and some of whom were claiming that their lives didn’t leave them any time to volunteer, although they lamented that this left them feeling pretty disengaged, at this point in their careers, from social work organizations.

Time constraints are valid. Social workers (and social work students) need to recharge and renew, if we are to effectively and sustainability serve those with whom we work.

And I’d never argue that my schedule would make sense for everyone.

So, this is not a “I should, and you should, too” post. Now, wouldn’t THAT be annoying?

Instead, since that conversation, I’ve been thinking about why I volunteer, and what I look for when I do, and why, right now, I’m missing my volunteer engagements as a pretty essential part of my life. I’d love to hear from those of you who volunteer in some capacity, about why you do and where you do and how you make it work, and I’d be grateful if you’d share your own volunteering reflections and advice, as my students and I continue to think through how volunteer activities fit at this point in their careers.

  • Sometimes, I volunteer as a way to share my values and my vision of the world with my own family. I volunteer at our church because I want our kids to grow up in a faith community that approaches discipleship from the same perspective, and that requires that I work to help build that faith community. I volunteer places where I can take my oldest son, sometimes, so that he can find roles that are meaningful and allow him to make connections beyond his narrower world.
  • I volunteer to shape organizations that I care about–not just our church, but on Boards of Directors of organizations that work on issues like school finance that are very close to my heart (and my family), and I volunteer as a pro bono consultant for some organizations working on immigration policy and other critical justice issues.
  • I volunteer to stay connected to the realities of social policies on the ground. It’s one thing for me to believe very strongly that good social policy should be crafted by those who understand its implications; it’s another for me to make sure that I’m investing the time necessary to maintain those linkages, too. I don’t want to be someone who just talks about how wrong poverty is, although I believe that talking is, indeed, one of the ways that I contribute to the quest for justice. I need authenticity, and struggle, and pain as constant parts of my connection to the social problems that are inherently painful, and volunteering is a way for me to sit down face-to-face with what social policy looks like in real life.
  • I volunteer because it allows me to work on skills that no one should really pay me for. I’m certainly not the world’s greatest direct social work practitioner. And I’m way worse at construction and meal preparation and some of the other ways in which I like to be able to dive into tangible help–the kind where you can look at the end of the day and see some impact, rather than waiting for three legislative cycles. There’s a real satisfaction in that work, but the only way that I have any business engaging in those activities is as a volunteer with pretty limited authority and little organizational investment.
  • And that relates to my final reason for volunteering–sometimes it’s wonderful to be a part of supporting others’ efforts, rather than the one convening. It’s a beautiful thing to show up and follow orders and feel part of a larger effort pursuing social justice, without having to do all of the preparation or replay the whole event in your mind later. Volunteering usually doesn’t feel like something else added to my list of responsibilities; it’s a sort of different kind of play, and it really is renewing. For me.

    So, volunteers–what are your favorite experiences to share, and what motivates your volunteering? And, those who want to volunteer but aren’t, what stands in your way, and how might we organize voluntarism so that it would work for your life?

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