volunteering: doing good or feeling good?

Why do we volunteer? Is it the desire to make a positive change in the community? Guilt from being “better off” than other people? The need to justify to ourselves or others that we’re good people? A school requirement? Maybe a mix of a lot of reasons.

It’s no question that nonprofits and charities that do a lot of really good stuff rely on volunteers. Without them, their organizations would fall apart. But I’ve done enough volunteer projects to know that in some cases, the volunteers get in the way more than they help.

Sometimes I wonder if organizations try to focus so much on creating the “volunteer experience” that their work becomes less efficient. You know, the type where you’re kept busy enough to fill the time, but not so much that you break a sweat – so that at the end of the day you’re left with that warm fuzzy feeling of having done something good.

This past week I had the opportunity to volunteer at two different places. One was a Habitat for Humanity construction site and the other was a food distribution drive.

At the Habitat place, I was partnered up with another volunteer and a coordinator. One of our tasks was to build wood frames around ventilation ducts (I really don’t know all that much of what I was doing – just hammering where they told me to). After some time of showing us how to do it, the coordinator sent us off to work on one while he did others. In the time that it took me and my partner to finish one, our coordinator had already finished 3 by himself. I am horrible at construction. I think I spent more time pulling out nails than hammering them in.

Which made me wonder how useful volunteers really are. I felt as if our coordinator who actually has construction skills could have gotten the jobs done so much faster than if he had to train unskilled volunteers and baby them through the process. Of course, we did get better as the day progressed. But in a way, I also felt that the time invested in explaining and teaching volunteers could have been easily put into the jobs that it took us the whole day to slowly accomplish.

Now the food drive was the type of event that required no skills – perfect for me. Though a little chaotic, it was well run. I just pushed shopping carts around for a few hours getting food for people, so I definitely felt like I contributed somehow. It was also amazing to jsee a community of people coming together to just help.

But it all left me wondering about my own reasons for volunteering, and the connection in having a “good volunteer experience.” I mean, let’s be honest, if you volunteered at organization and had a horrible time for some reason, would you do it again? So how necessary is it, or to what extent should organizations lower their work efficiency just so volunteers could have a good time and feel like they did something good? Is there a such thing as selflessly helping others, or is it just a another form of selfishness to feel good about myself?

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