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Being a Happy Volunteer: Lessons Learned From 25 Years of Volunteer Work

Updated: Apr 7, 2022

Being a volunteer is a huge part of my life. I have been a volunteer for over 25 years now. Most of my volunteering has been connected to my faith community—I have taught Sunday school, served on more committees I can count, led a few ministry teams, and I was active in women’s circles and other ministries.

Over these years, I have learned many lessons on what works and what doesn’t work for me as a volunteer. I hope some of these lessons will be helpful to you as you volunteer or lead volunteers.

1. Do What You Love To Do: If you are volunteering doing something you don’t actually like doing, you will not be engaged or happy doing the work. For example, if you love cooking, join a meal team to get meals to those who need them. If you love driving, you can drive a home-bound person to their doctor’s appointment or the grocery store. But if you don’t like cooking or driving, don’t join a team that does that. As a volunteer, you have the great freedom to do what you love to do, so think about what you are passionate about. Mowing the grass? Making phone calls? Connecting with people? Reading a book? Working with the latest technology? You can use these skills in your volunteer work, even under the restrictions of social distancing. You can mow the grass for someone else, you can call those who are isolated or lonely, or you can read a book out loud to someone else.

2. It’s OK to Say No: Just because you are asked to do something you don’t enjoy doing, such as making hand-made cards or sewing pillows for cancer patients when you don’t like crafts, it’s OK to say NO. Be honest with yourself and with those who are running this volunteer opportunity about what you enjoy doing and what you don’t. I was once asked to join a finance committee and I had to be honest with the leader of the committee that I was not the right person for the job. I don’t enjoy finances and I would most likely be the most miserable person there, which would not be a good for the morale of the whole committee.

3. Communication is Key! As a volunteer, you need to know how the lines of communication work. Who do you go to with issues or concerns? What are the goals and mission of this volunteer group? How is the schedule set? Who is responsible for what part? Being able to communicate with your leaders and fellow volunteers is key to having a great experience.

4. What Is My Job Description? I have learned that I need to know exactly what my job description is. I work best when I know what is expected of me and what I am responsible for. Once, I had a position that wasn’t clearly defined where I was basically told I could do what I needed to do on my own time with very little guidance. I did not feel comfortable with that at all because I didn’t know if I was doing what I was supposed to be doing or not, how I was fulfilling my position, or if there was something I was missing.

5. Enjoyable Team Meetings Are Important: As a volunteer, it is important for me to know that I will be able to connect with my team on a regular basis. This is where I get fed by the relationships we have established and by encouraging each other in the work we do.

However, I have left a volunteer team because of how boring the meetings were, too. We all know how difficult it is to stay engaged in the work, if you are dreading the meetings and don’t want to go. On the other hand, if the meetings are engaging, to the point, and organized, with good leadership—they make all the difference in my enthusiasm for being a part of this team and the work we are doing. I look forward to our meetings, knowing that I will get to see my friends and be energized by the work we do together.

6. It’s OK to Leave a Volunteer Position: I have stayed in a couple of my volunteer positions for years, and I am most likely going to keep going with those because they are my most favorite ones. However, all the other volunteer positions I have been in have ended either because they required a commitment for a certain time or because I have left them when it was time for me to move on. Sometimes you are ready to do something else, or a new volunteer position opens up for you that you need to devote more time to. It is OK to leave and move on. We all grow and change and sometimes it will mean that we need to move on to something else that we are also passionate about.

7. Volunteering Makes Me Grow and Learn in New and Unexpected Ways: I know I have become a better person, listener, leader, and teacher because of the work I have done volunteering. I take those skills with me everywhere I go—to my job, to the relationships I have with my family and friends and, of course, to other volunteer opportunities!

I hope these lessons are something you can relate to in your own work as a volunteer. I do believe that volunteers change the world. Most of the good things that happen in our world today are linked to those who give of their time, energy, and gifts to give back to their communities. In what ways are you giving back?

What lessons have been valuable to you in your own volunteer work?

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