Volunteering is all-around a good thing, right? It gives you the chance to build up your résumé, expand your network, gain relevant experience, AND help out a cause that you care about. And for most people, this is exactly what their volunteer experience turns out to be.
But sometimes organizations can take advantage of your willingness to work for free and push you a little too far. Just ask guest writer Chau Le, who realized that she was giving and giving at her volunteer position—and not getting much more than stress and more tasks in return.
Read on to learn how Chau discovered her volunteer gig had taken a turn for the worse and what advice she has to help other college students and recent grads avoid finding themselves in the same position.
When I was fresh out of school and unemployed, I got sick of sitting at home all day. I needed to network and meet people. Volunteering is a great way to get out of the house and maybe meet a hiring manager or two, which is why I signed up to help organize an upcoming event with a local organization. Everyone graciously welcomed me as a volunteer, and soon enough, the projects came pouring in.
Wanting to make a good impression, I said yes to every request. This was a big event, and I was told that it was essential that all of the tasks were accomplished on time. Knowing this from the outset framed my experience: I became convinced that saying no to a request would be a failure on my part as a team player.
One day I was having lunch with a friend when my phone rang. I ignored it—this was a scheduled lunch date, after all—and then it rang again, making me wonder if this was something important. I picked up the phone the second time and stepped away to take the call (thankfully I was with a patient friend, who instead of storming out on me after being left alone for more than half an hour, simply asked if I was okay upon my return).
The call had been from my volunteer gig and they’d asked me to complete several assignments by the end of the week. Since everyone else on the team was too busy, it was up to me to save the day. But after taking that initial intrusive phone call, my weeks thereafter began to resemble a 911 hotline, where I would receive an email or phone call late at night or before 7am asking if I’d completed or could take on another task.
The payoff—or so I believed—was that besides racking up the volunteer hours, I’d be able to meet industry movers and shakers and grow my network. I’d be placed in front of anyone and everyone who mattered. So long as I continued the good work!
The pressure to make a good impression
If you’re a new employee, it’s important to showcase your abilities and work ethic. But what is your role as a volunteer? It depends.
One time, as I was racing against the deadline to finish a paying freelance project, I was also asked to submit a write-up for my volunteer job by the end of the day. I had made time for both projects, but opted to focus on the paying piece first. While I was working on the paid project, I found myself jarred by a stream of mid-day emails asking if I was working on the write-up. It was hard not to succumb to their urgency, so I switched gears and decided to finish the write-up in order to “prove myself.”
This soon became a routine of living under a sense of urgency. I’m not trying to place blame here—I understand that it could have been my self-imposed desire to please everyone around me, or the fact that the work really was overwhelming. But after several weeks of growing anxiety, I finally made the decision to say “no.”
It’s okay to say no.
You should definitely give your job 100%, especially if you’re new. But if the work begins to bleed into your personal life, and feels suspiciously lacking in boundaries, take a step back to examine what’s going on.
Saying yes makes us feel important, but think about it before you agree next time, especially if you’re already feeling stretched thin. Is the world really going to fall apart if you say no to something that you simply don’t have energy for?
Most jobs or roles come with boundaries. A salaried employee calls it a day after finishing her daily tasks. A student goes and parties after he’s submitted all of his homework. A volunteer should be able to set her own schedule too. If you’re being asked to do more than what is prescribed for your role, it’s okay to say no.
Trust your instincts—and your elders.
The producer who promises the young actress that she’ll become a star, the boyfriend who constantly declares his love but fails to deliver, the internship that doesn’t pay now but could maybe possibly one day translate into a paid position: how do we recognize empty promises? Having experienced professionals or parents to guide you is indispensable. They’re usually the ones who can spot a good or bad situation from a mile away when your vision is only just beginning to adjust.
When I began disappearing from my family, by the end of the first week, they knew that what I was doing wasn’t the right fit. But being stubborn, and not a quitter, I fought back, wanting to stick it out until the very end. And when it came time to walk away, instead of saying “I told you so,” they welcomed me back with open arms, saying instead “It’s a lesson learned.”
If you find yourself in a working situation that doesn’t feel right, don’t be afraid to get an outside opinion. Ask your professors, family, and friends if what you’re experiencing seems appropriate. If it doesn’t, it’s probably time for you to extricate yourself from that situation.
Remember that people are not evil (for the most part).
Interns are at the bottom of the rung in the workforce. Medical students spend 3 years working 90-hour weeks. Volunteers work for free in exchange for the sense of making a positive contribution to society, even if at other companies people get paid for the same type of work. This seems unfair, but it’s part of a system, and there’s probably no evil mastermind at the very top of the ladder intentionally subjecting these interns to such torture. Sometimes your supervisor may be stressed out and overworked and simply not realize that what they’re asking you is unreasonable.
Your first step should always be to assume the best, and begin by telling your supervisor what’s not working. For example, in my case I could have explained that I was able to devote a maximum of two hours a day to the volunteer project and would not accept any phone calls before 8am. By setting clear boundaries, you give people the chance to correct their behavior and do the right thing. It might not always work, but it’s worth a try!
I was someone who said yes to everything, and that became a great resource for the organization. Unfortunately, it just led to more and more responsibilities and pressure without much added benefit to me. Until I started saying no, there was no reason for the organization to stop asking me for help.
I didn’t get a job or meet Obama in the end. But I learned how to work with a variety of people, and the crucial lesson that no is sometimes better than yes—and that is an indispensable skill.
Over to you: Have you found yourself in a frustrating internship or volunteer position where you felt you were taken advantage of by the organization? How did you handle it? Share your experience and advice in the comments section below.
About the author: Chau Le is an avid globetrotting polyglot, who has an unhealthy romance with Nutella, an attraction to writing, and an addiction to Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Read more of Chau’s writing at http://thetravelingcherub.wordpress.com.