How Volunteering Altered My Life Plans

I watched so much “Quincy M.E.” as a child that I decided I wanted to be a doctor. I talked about it so much that a family friend suggested to my mom that I serve as a Teenage Volunteer (previously known as Candy Stripers – my uniform was a red and white striped dress) at our local hospital. Since I’m not a doctor, you can guess how this turns out. My stint as a Teenage Volunteer at the hospital made me realize: I don’t like sick people. That volunteer experience likely saved me years of education and hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Interesting side note, my first nonprofit fundraising job was in a hospital so I landed in healthcare after all – still helping sick people, just not with them day to day.

After earning a business degree in college, I went into banking. My dad was a banker so I assumed that I knew what I was getting into but… unfortunately I was miserable. Nothing against banking or bankers, it just wasn’t the right fit for me. During that really long year of banking, a sorority connection reached out to see if I would serve as a volunteer chapter advisor for a local chapter. While she was recruiting me for the volunteer position, I learned that she had been promoted and was replacing herself. That’s where my lifelong career in fundraising really began – all because I answered yes to an invitation to volunteer.

In neither of these instances of volunteering did I have a stated reason of ‘gain info that will dramatically alter the trajectory of my life’ but now that I look back, I see that they did.

As volunteer managers we have to remember that volunteering can change the lives of those who volunteer – perhaps not in such a drastic life path way as with my two examples – just as much as the people/cause/animal the volunteer is serving. When we take the time to figure out the why behind our volunteer’s gift of time, we can insure the relationship is benefiting them as much as it benefits our organization. Not taking the time to nurture those relationships and helping our volunteers find and realize their ‘why’ can leave the volunteer feeling unappreciated and ultimately finding somewhere else to give their time.

My recommendation is this: Invest some time nurturing the relationship with your volunteers. It will be worth it for you, for them and for the people you are both serving.

Be One: If You Are a Volunteer Manager, Volunteer.

releasing a dolphin
Photo by International Fund for Animal Welfare on

One of the most important lessons we can use to improve our work: be one. Become a mystery shopper and do some field research. We’ll be sharing how you can do field research throughout your organization, but today let’s focus on volunteer management.

If you are a volunteer manager, volunteer.

By volunteering for another organization, you can have first-hand experience to strengthen your own volunteer management and volunteer program. Using the things they do right and wrong, you’ll take back ideas to improve your program and strengthen your volunteer base.

Here are some things you can learn from your experience serving:

  • Recruitment – pay attention to how you are invited to volunteer. Strong volunteer programs use a targeted approach to find the skills they need. How did they find you? Did they make it easy or hard to show your interest in being involved? Are there creative techniques you could adapt to fit your organization?
  • Training/orientation – when you begin your volunteer work, notice how they orient you to the mission and culture of the organization and how they train you for your volunteer assignment. Do you feel comfortable? Did you have enough information to do the job effectively? Did you know who to ask if you had questions?
  • Appreciation – during and after your volunteer service think about how you were made to feel. Organizations often customize their volunteer recognition to fit the particular volunteer. Take note of how they do that with you. Did you know that your service mattered? Did you feel appreciated, or just like a “thank volunteer” box was checked?
  • Continued engagement – following your time with them, take note of how the charity keeps you engaged. Did they look for additional ways to keep you involved? For instance, inviting you to volunteer again or make a donation.
Here’s a fun sample from Meals on Wheels of Tampa that I received because I volunteer for them.

Don’t be afraid to ask your coworkers and board members to share volunteer experiences from the charities they support. This will allow you to create a library of samples – good and bad. 

Every organization approaches the care and management of volunteers differently. That means there are an endless number of lessons to be learned with your hands-on experience and field research.

What Be One post would you like to see next? Contact us and let us know what field research we should get into next.