Wednesday, December 7, 2011

What I learned from my Volunteering attemtpts

I wanted to share a little of what I learned about volunteering. First let me share the background of my volunteering efforts. The lessons are at the end of this post.

Like many of us, all my working life, I kept telling myself that once "I had a lot of time" I would devote a good chunk of it to 'volunteering efforts.' Prior to 2008, my volunteering efforts were mostly those sponsored by my company. We'd drop off something for occasional food and clothes drives, or buy, gift-wrap and drop off a toy for "underprivileged" kids during the Holidays.  And a couple of times each year, in exchange for donating our time on a Saturday (races-for-causes, painting school classrooms and the like) we'd receive a logo-filled T-shirt, a goodie bag and the accompanying warm glow.

There were many occasions when I wondered if the amount of time and money that our corporation spent on organizing the event (the logistics, transportation, food for us, the T-shirts etc) weren't better spent by simply collecting money and giving it to the organization instead. But I am also pragmatic, and I understood that there is a "team building" aspect to these events.

Once we left our jobs, my wife and I looked for volunteering opportunities. We did try out several. (I am a big fan of the "marketplace" model that uses in many cities – matching non-profits with would-be volunteers.)

Of course, just because we showed up didn't mean that the organizations had the ability to utilize our skills. To oversimplify, what a lot of organizations needed was really some administrative help. Many of the small and local organizations really needed to improve their operational efficiency. Anyone who's spent time volunteering can tell you that. The feeling that for a few dollars an hour, anyone could have done what I was doing never went away. It wasn't what we had hoped for, but we did help out. However, with us moving from city to city frequently, we couldn’t be of much long-term help to these organizations.

What I felt was really lacking in volunteering at these places was 'scale.' I was more inclined to give my time if it would positively impact a lot of people rather than just a handful.

When I was in India, I chanced upon an email about an opportunity at NPTEL. I responded and was included almost right away. This was a nationwide effort to create instructional videos for engineering students (very similar to MIT's OCW). The scale and scope was there, plus they needed someone like me. Also, because this happened to be my alma mater, I was welcomed back and knew ways to get things done. The professors were churning out good videos. But not many people were watching them online.
 My task was to help get the word out. And I even had access to a sizable budget. Plus, I had knowledge of both sides. I had taken some of these courses, been a student in one of the colleges and taught similar material during my grad school. I knew the strengths to tout and what needed to be improved. Also, the effort needed was quite similar to what a lot of middle managers do, so I had the experience. I felt very much at home. We organized workshops, visited colleges and it worked great for a few months.
They kept asking me to take a salary and become an NPTEL employee so that they could give me more responsibilities. The problem was that after a dozen years of corporate life, I didn't want to become an employee. I didn't want to have a boss to report to. I liked the autonomy that came with doing everything voluntarily and without pay.

I can now see that what I thought was a virtue was the real stumbling block. Since I didn't have a "contract" of any sort, it never went much beyond helping out on an as-needed basis. And then it was time for me to come back to the States.

Which brings me to my current thinking on volunteering efforts.

Lessons about volunteering:1.    Just because you think of yourself as capable doesn't mean that a non-profit can readily use your 'skills.'
2.    In my case, my efforts felt meaningful only when it was at a large scale, something that would impact many people. Also, somewhat paradoxically, whenever my volunteering efforts closely mimicked what my regular work was like, it felt satisfying. In other words, doing what I am reasonably efficient at doing, but doing it pro-bono felt good.
3.    Unless one becomes officially affiliated, one can't expect to be handed lots of responsibility and opportunities.