How to volunteer

For the past several years, I’ve been serving as the president of the Young New Yorkers’ Chorus, a 50-60 voice mixed ensemble that specializes in commissioning new works. Last night at rehearsal we held an election to replace me.

It was an occasion that was both exciting and a little sad. The choir is very important to me, and I’ve learned a lot about effective leadership from serving in this role. I’ve learned that getting the right people to do the right jobs matters. I’ve learned that sometimes you have to take risks artistically and financially and trust that the money and ability to execute will come. In the past few years, we’ve commissioned 18 new works through our Competition for Young Composers, we’ve sung one of the most thrilling renditions of Rachmaninoff’s Vespers I’ve ever heard, and we’ve hired an orchestra and performed Tarik O’Regan’s Triptych with the composer in the audience.

I’m excited because our new president is incredibly hard-working and thoughtful and will pour herself into taking the choir to the next level. I’m sad because I’m going to have to figure out how to replicate the fulfillment I’ve gotten through YNYC in a different volunteer capacity – which is what brings us to this blog post.

People who volunteer are happier and healthier than other people. And, of course, they make the world a better place. Yet only about a quarter of Americans volunteer. Only about a third of these folks logs more than 100 hours annually. Thus volunteering for a mere 2 hours out of every 168 will launch you into the top tenth of community-minded individuals in this country. This is very doable, even if you lead a busy life, if you follow a few guidelines:

1. Focus. Pick a cause that matters the most to you. This is harder than it sounds because there are a lot of really good causes out there! Put some thought into this. Ask what gets you most hot and bothered – perhaps there’s a way you could work toward solving this problem. Or there’s something you love, like the performing arts, which your professional work doesn’t really tap. You may have to try a number of different activities before settling on one; the Hands On Network offers low-commitment volunteer opportunities in different cities that allow you to experiment.

2. Make a serious commitment. One of the reasons YNYC has been so meaningful for me is that I’ve been there every week for 7 years. By taking on a leadership role, I could also see my ideas come to fruition. The more time I invested, the better things worked.

3. Understand what volunteering can and cannot do. Especially during this recession, a number of career coaches and authors have suggested volunteering as a way to build your professional resume. It can work. Just keep in mind that if this is about your career, then you need to keep a business mindset. Your volunteer work should show results: for instance, you raised a certain amount of money and then implemented a program that reached 600 kids and resulted in fewer behavioral problems at their school. It’s a good idea to show results anyway! It keeps us honest. But also keep in mind that some volunteering looks better on a resume than others. A recent study found that, if you’re a woman, listing PTA volunteering on your resume lowers your chance of being called for an interview. Fair? No. But a fact.

4. Use volunteering to practice “alignment.” When you’re trying to build a career while raising a family, it’s often hard to find time for friends. But if you volunteer with friends, then you’ll have a built in reason to get together and a social group that cares about the same things you do. I tried three different choirs in NYC before finally settling on YNYC. Besides the choir’s high artistic standards, its major selling point was that it was so social, and as the president, I could make sure we stayed social. I love going out for drinks once a month after rehearsal with the crew. There’s nothing like partying on a Tuesday night to take a little mental break from job stress and my workaday identity as a mommy of two.

5. Learn how to say “no.” Focusing your time means deciding not to take on other volunteer opportunities after you’ve chosen the one that means the most to you. Again, this is hard, because there are a lot of worthy opportunities out there, and sometimes people will expect you to donate time because of proximity (school, church, etc.) You have to learn to keep in mind that when you say yes to something new, you are in fact saying “no” to going all-in on a commitment you’ve already made. You cannot make more time. But I’ve found that giving a donation is often just as welcome. If you’re making big donations, you should concentrate those on your main cause. But small ones are OK. Yes, time is money, but among the busiest people, money is often less scarce than minutes.

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2 thoughts on “How to volunteer

  1. I’ve found that volunteermatch.org is a great clearinghouse for volunteer opportunities. It allows you to sort locations and various demographic groups you may want to work with. They even have ones that are specifically geared towards kids if you are trying to instill some altruism in your offspring.

    This group matched me with Mrs. Kelley, a visually impaired, elderly woman over 15 years ago. I see her about 2/month to read mail, pay bills and other odd jobs and it’s been a phenomenal experience for both of us. I hadn’t heard of Hands On Network so I’m looking forward to checking them out. Thanks.

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