Are you a “guilty volunteer”? A guilty volunteer is someone who can’t say no but then resents saying yes.
For example, if the emails say, “We need helpers for field day.” Do you translate that it into “The school or church will crumble into dust if you don’t help out”?
Volunteering out of guilt, instead of true desire, leads to resentment. A friend of mine volunteered to help out at her children’s school on Picture Day. She had to cancel at the last minute because her daughter got sick. The volunteer coordinator got irritated that my friend was canceling without a replacement, saying, “It’s really going to put us in a bind here.” My friend got irritated in return, saying, “If that’s the way they treat their volunteers, I’m not going to help them out again.”
Both parties left the exchange frustrated and feeling unappreciated. It was lost on my friend that the coordinator was also a volunteer here who was very likely feeling overburdened.
The real root of the problem is that no one was very excited to be doing the job in the first place. Both my friend and the volunteer coordinator viewed picture day as a chore, something they were “supposed” to do. Because they were operating out of guilt, rather than a true desire to help, they were both quick to be irritated when something went wrong.
When you volunteer for a task you aren’t excited about, you tend to expect others to notice your sacrifice. You’re looking for external validation. When you don’t get the appreciation you crave, resentment is quick to follow.
When you volunteer for the joy of contributing, you’re rarely resentful. For example, have you ever been part of a Habitat for Humanity project?
The people are excited to be there. They’re filled with joy because they know they’re making a contribution. People rave about working on Habitat houses because they can see their progress and are emotionally connected to the outcome. The same can be said of many volunteer experiences. The secret is having passion for the cause.
In the aforementioned Picture Day incident, part of the problem was that neither volunteer felt much passion about shuttling kids back and forth for their school pictures. Could it have been a meaningful experience?
Of course, helping young children put their best selves forth to be captured in a photo that their parents and grandparents will love can be fun. But it’s only fun if you get yourself into the right head space before you start.
I used to recruit volunteers for my church, and here’s what I noticed: People who took jobs because they felt guilty – “If I don’t teach pre-K, who will?” – were never as effective as the people who took jobs because they truly wanted to do them – “I love 4-year-olds; I can’t wait to teach pre-K!”
Guilt may induce you to sign up for a thankless task, but it quickly loses its motivational power as the job wears on. If you’re going to volunteer, don’t simply respond to somebody else’s desperate plea for help. Think about how you can create a meaningful experience for yourself. Choose something you care about, and give yourself the gift of being fully present while you do it.
The next time someone scans the room asking for volunteers, scan your own heart. If you find guilt instead of enthusiasm, please, put your hand down.