In a Real Voluntary Organization You Grow

A woman waiting for free soup at a booth set up by volunteers in Kamppi, Helsinki. Picture: Tony Öhberg for Finland Today

A woman waiting for free soup at a booth set up by volunteers in Kamppi, Helsinki. Picture: Tony Öhberg for Finland Today

Working as a volunteer can be rewarding. After all, being altruistic just means that instead of getting monetary compensation, you get the warm feeling of being a good human being. You are indeed someone caring for others. You think about more than just your own selfish butt and how to keep it warm.

Remember the episode in Friends where Phoebe tries to do a good deed without getting anything in return, not even a good feeling about herself (and repeatedly fails) . . . well, we should know that there is no such thing as true altruism. At least not in its original definition, which means something like your behavior benefits someone else at your own expense. Benefitting someone else is easy, right? Donate your money or time, do some charity, give away your belongings, you know the drill.

But wait – what is this subconscious feeling you suddenly get after having done that? This contentedness, an utter satisfaction with yourself and your good deeds. Ha – knowing you have done something good by sacrificing your time makes you feel good about yourself, right?

So, where’s the selflessness gone? Yea, you get it. But however well it makes you feel, maybe it doesn’t matter. As long as there are drivers that motivate us to care beyond the end of our nose, we don’t necessarily need to question or define them. Let’s just gratefully accept this fact and keep on doing good things now and then.

Phoebe does a good deed.

Still, people work in voluntary organizations for many different reasons. Some want to learn new skills. Some want to feel good about themselves. Others want the benefits that come with it (usually free food, at times kinkier than that). And some just enjoy the company.

As diverse as these motivations are the skills attached: If you hire people for a team in a job, you usually get to choose the ones with a certain educational background that you need. If you “hire” volunteers (and you’re just an ordinary student organization with too much work), you got to accept what comes your way. Manpower is manpower (or womanpower), and you usually can’t afford to question their motives or expertise.

Usually, this does not matter much – the skills required for the tasks are typically so generic that it doesn’t take a genius to execute them. What matters, though, is the intrinsic motivation. Everyone has a different level of that by nature, and the hiring and firing process of the free market regulates it to a smoother average.

The skills required for the tasks are typically so generic that it doesn’t take a genius to execute them. What matters, though, is the intrinsic motivation.

But what to do when you cannot fire people? Burn them? What if they take on tasks and never do them? Or it takes them ages to execute them, but whenever you want to reassign someone, they assure you they are “on it”? What if they seem to hang out in the organization and enjoy all the plus sides, but when it comes to actual work they are usually busy? Well, maybe they should be given a task where they can’t do any harm? Like counting peas. Or maybe even something simpler: Take care of this chair, please. Sit on it and don’t move!” And then there are the different personalities . . . . Another annoying factor most humans bring with them; different personalities imply different perceptions and views on things. Ha. Ha.

Sarcasm aside, when you spend more time on discussing how to do things, how to interact, how to communicate, and how people feel while doing all this than actually just doing things, you know you are truly part of a voluntary organization. A real one – not this pseudo-voluntary stuff that for-profit companies have made up to exploit labor for free by promising young naïve people experience and a great afterlife: in those shady agreements, the companies actually still sustain the power over the employee, ehm, sorry – volunteer. They can actually fire them when they are not doing their job. And someone who takes on an unpaid job in the first place probably doesn’t want to lose it again for not being available during a Saturday night.

The skills you aim to learn in a voluntary organization are patience, selflessness and generosity.

In a  real voluntary organization, you should be grateful for everyone’s opinion. And personality. And the fact that they don’t do anything for 6 months, but then once they carried the water canister into the kitchen, and thus they are a valuable part of the organization, irreplaceable almost. And that’s when you know you finally got the biggest reward from being part of this: you grew.

The skills you aim to learn in a voluntary organization are patience, selflessness and generosity. Patience as in acknowledging all sorts of different people, their different perceptions of work, and their own definition of completing a task. Selflessness, like actually completing the task for them in the background, but not telling anyone and letting them have all the credit. And generosity, finally, when you realize there’s nothing more to learn and you give the floor to the newbies to make all the same mistakes again that have been made and fixed a million times before – that’s when you know you gained all you could from working in a voluntary organization, and you can finally put this on your CV and move on.

The true value of a voluntary organization is not the warm feeling of being a decent human being. The true value for any volunteer is to grow as a person. The (student) organization as such is a training base, an unfinished project with reoccurring problems, the same ones every year actually, and besides all knowledge transfer, all wisdom recording-and-passing-on, and all efforts of older members, the same mistakes are being made when encountering the same problems.

You learn teamwork, patience (yes, for real!), and how to improvise. And once you find yourself solving the same problems half asleep and under the influence, but still better than the newbies, you know it is finally time to move on.

It is time to make room for other people. Let them step in and start growing.


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