Podcast: Making time for community and volunteering

When I ask people what they’d like to spend more time doing, volunteering lands on the list almost as frequently as exercise and reading.

People would like to contribute to their communities. They know they’d probably enjoy doing different activities, and maybe tapping different skills than they do during the work day. They’d like to meet friends and neighbors who are also committed to their communities, or to important causes.

But in the middle of work and family obligations, it can be difficult to make another commitment. And even if people know they might be able to volunteer occasionally, taking on the sort of leadership roles where they might truly make a difference seems like a big leap.

So Sarah and I were excited to welcome Rachel Unger to the podcast this week. No, that last name is not a coincidence; Rachel is Sarah’s sister-in-law, and they recorded this episode while sitting together in the Miami area, where Rachel is an elementary school teacher, mom of two, and a leader in her temple’s social justice efforts.

You’ll need to listen to the episode to learn about all of her work, but let’s just say it’s extensive. She might have meetings or events three nights per week (in addition to the normal weekend religious activities). How does a working mother make this all fit? A few tips, and things to keep in mind.

Seasons change. Rachel stepped up her involvement in recent years as her children have gotten older and more independent. I know from my time diary studies that women with children under age 2 have significantly less leisure time than women with older children. I haven’t studied fathers specifically, but I imagine many of the same time pressures come into play. While people with babies can volunteer, it might help to remember that life and time will look different when the children are a little older.

Parents are people too. Many modern parents would not bat an eyelash about a child having three nights of activities per week. While you’re scheduling the children’s karate classes and piano lessons, you can think about building your interests into the mix as well.

Kids should have lots of adults in their lives. Rachel served as her children’s primary parent when they were younger. Her community involvement simply means they now spend more evenings with her husband. Or her extended family. The whole clan lives relatively close by. Another consideration: the upside of being involved in a religious community is that such groups are often welcoming of the whole family. Rachel’s children sometimes come with her to meetings, and their own house of worship is certainly a familiar place to hang out.

Time is time. You want to go into any commitment knowing what it will require. But even extensive commitments might be fewer hours than you think, and certainly the number will be reasonable compared with other things people spend time on. Let’s say Rachel’s community work takes 10 hours per week. Plenty of people in the Miami area have 1-hour commutes. She does not; she works, lives, and volunteers in the same neighborhood. You could find the time for involvement right there. Or consider how many people watch 10 hours of TV per week. Or spend 10 hours on social media! Screen time is effortless fun; volunteering is effort-ful. However, effort-ful activities tend to be more meaningful in the long run, and seem to expand time both as it is happening and in the rear view mirror.

Meaningful work is energizing. There are a lot of causes out there. The best approach is to only commit time to ones that you are truly passionate about. If you say yes to activities that don’t energize you, you won’t be able to give your best. So change your mindset. Saying no doesn’t mean something isn’t a worthy cause. It means that it’s so worthy, you don’t want to be disrespectful by making a commitment you won’t be able to keep.

How do you make time for volunteering or community involvement?

11 thoughts on “Podcast: Making time for community and volunteering

  1. I currently volunteer once per quarter through my work to deliver senior meals. Because it’s a workplace project, it is acceptable to be gone for ~2 hours during the day to complete it, and we have a ton of people doing it so the commitment is light. This has been my main volunteer commitment since my daughter (now 2.5) was born.

    Something I stepped back from when she was born – my position on the Friends of the Library board. I am passionate about libraries but nothing I was doing on the board was changing the world or helping me connect with people. We existed to rubber-stamp the library director’s projects. I walked out on my position mid-term, which felt awful but I still think it was the right decision.

    Most recently, I’ve teamed up with 5 other women to start a chapter for a technical women’s organization in our community, to better support and encourage women in STEM careers. This does feel like I’m changing the world and I was ready for slightly more commitment than the senior lunches.

    1. @Byrd – good for you for starting the chapter to support women in STEM. Volunteer work is like anything else, some of it winds up working well and some not, and when time is limited (as it is with jobs and young kids) you need to focus on what you can be most effective doing.

  2. I serve on a commission in my community, and the fact that it is a government body and subject to open meetings laws (agendas must be publicly posted ahead of time; commissioners cannot meet to discuss public business outside of the public meetings, etc.) helps limit the time commitment required. There is “homework” (reviewing documents related to agenda items in preparation for meetings), but I can do it whenever I have time in my schedule before the public meetings. I also work at a nonprofit that relies on volunteers for help during special events; we often have families with elementary school or middle school age kids sign up to volunteer together. And many nonprofits can structure volunteer opportunities to accommodate your schedule–you just have to ask. It may mean not getting to do the specific activity you wanted to if it occurs only during business hours, but you can still help out the organization in a meaningful way. I’ve also helped a couple of community organizations I wanted to be involved with adjust their activities to better accommodate working parents. The organizations were willing, but didn’t realize how they could easily address the issue (for example, providing child care for a members’ meeting).

    1. @J – many years ago I wrote an article about some organizations that purposefully structure volunteer work to accommodate people with jobs (so nights and weekends, and with limited time commitments). It’s a great idea, and I love the idea of family volunteering too. Our church provides a few opportunities like this, and when our littlest is a little older we will do more of them.

  3. Congratulations to Rachel and her cochair on their success with this very important issue! I heard about it all the way up here in IL where we are trying to make sure people who are incarcerated know their voting rights.

    Several months ago I started volunteering with a local activist group mostly around health care and immigrant reforms. I have learned so much and it has built a new purpose into my life that wasn’t there before. At the time I joined they were looking for some online marketing/ communications help, which is something I can do in little pockets of time, is not logistically tricky, and that I enjoy (and have professional experience). We are always trying to let our volunteers know that we welcome their help no matter how small. Specifically with political campaigns and the primary and general election seasons coming up, readers/listeners should know that you can often sign up to write postcards (fun, low-contact) or join ‘text banking’ efforts (reminding voters of their polling places and talking about candidates) from home. It doesn’t have to be going to a protest or making a speech.

  4. I love this topic! I am still in the little kid stage of parenting and I’ve been thinking about how and when I will make time for more frequent volunteering and community involvement. This was such an inspiring interview, too, because Rachel described her work with some issues I’m passionate about. I loved hearing her talk about bringing her kids with her to meetings! I’m a librarian—a profession in which there’s a strong public service element. It’s fun to see libraries through their eyes, and when I can incorporate my kids into professional events, I definitely do.

    I really appreciated your question about what teachers want parents to know! With both of the teachers you’ve interviewed, it’s been really interesting to hear the perspectives of parents who also teach.

    1. @Robin- so glad you enjoyed it! My kids have been blessed with many wonderful teachers and I know they, like Rachel, are focused on the same goal as parents: helping children succeed.

  5. This was my favourite episode so far. It was so refeshing to hear from a busy working mom who didn’t have a nanny or a significant amount of help.

    I love that she noted that it was easier for her to make time to do the things she wanted to because her older kids could be left to their own devices or brought along for the ride.

    Kudos to you and Sarah for representing the average working mom who doesn’t have access to alot of help and still makes it work. It gives me hope!!!

  6. I really enjoyed this podcast. For a little while I started to wonder if I was spreading myself too thin by joining the board of a foundation, but the podcast affirmed something for me as well – that as long as all the things you are doing – family, work, community service, social justice work, hobbies – are making your life full and happy, there’s no reason to scale back. Since the foundation is starting and quite small, we manage by having meetings at my house, where the kids can entertain themselves better. I also occasionally pull in grandma or a nearby sister for help.

    1. @Phoebe- agreed. When you are doing things that energize you, you’re not really stretching yourself thin. You’re building yourself up! Plus, brilliant to host at your house where the kids are on their own turf.

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