Are you supposed to love volunteering?

I was telling someone about being disappointed that my latest volunteer gig has not turned out to be a “this is it” experience. I don’t dislike it, but I’d rather be doing something else.

She (let’s call her Carol) said that I have the mistaken impression that we’re supposed to enjoy volunteer work.

Her comment took me aback. All of the articles in the AARP magazine about people who love their volunteer roles, who feel they get back more than they give, must have brainwashed me into thinking that volunteering should be an enjoyable experience.

It’s nice if that happens, Carol said, but don’t expect it. She believes that fulfillment in volunteering comes not from the activity itself but from knowing that you’ve done good. Think of it like housework: you don’t like to do it, but you feel good about having a clean house.

A few years ago, I was hearing the opposite opinion from friends after I quit a volunteer role I didn’t like. Volunteering is not supposed to be self-sacrifice, they reassured me. You’re entitled to like it.

I thought so, too, but was disappointed in myself for disliking nearly everything I’d tried. That’s not entirely true; I have been a happy Chicago Greeter for 14 years, and I like writing this blog. But I believe that I should be doing something for underprivileged people, and I’ve not found a suitable activity that I like.

I don’t deserve all the blame for disliking what I’ve tried. A food pantry assigned me to stocking shelves alone. A mentoring organization said that I could work with students on their college application essays but then used me in the same coaching role as every other mentor. An immigrant support group had me remotely watch court hearings to support people who couldn’t see me — an activity whose usefulness escaped me.

“A lot of people go into a volunteer experience with the best of intentions. But they wind up disappointed by something that should be making them feel good,” writes Ronnie Ann on her website Work to the Wise. Boredom, not using one’s particular skills, and not seeing how one’s time is making a difference are among the complaints on Ronnie Ann’s list of why people don’t like volunteer work. At least I know that I’m not unusual.

When I learned that the League of Women Voters of Chicago was looking for volunteer issue reporters, it seemed a good fit for a retired editor and journalist: Interesting subjects. Researching and writing at home on my own schedule. No deadlines.

But as time goes on, I find myself procrastinating about my current LWV project.

Maybe I’m not connecting my efforts with making a difference for the underprivileged. Or maybe I just don’t want to sit inside at a computer when it’s warm outside.

I’ll give it the winter and then reevaluate. I don’t want to search again for something else, however, so I may stick with it as long as I don’t dislike it. As Carol said, “don’t dislike it” is better than expecting to love it; it’s less likely to lead to disappointment.

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  • These are important thoughts, Marianne; thanks. Maybe it would help you to call it "volunteer work" instead of "volunteering." Adding the word "work" can bring in the reminder that it's a job or assignment that needs to get done... and who's completely thrilled about those? Sure, some fun or joy helps, but there are plenty of days when things just feel like they're on the Dumb Things I've Gotta Do list.

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    So many nonprofits assign volunteers to unsuitable tasks ... The brass, harassed as CEOS of for-profits, aren't interested in harnessing unique talents and gifts (or in changing outdated systems and policies). It's "Do as I say, for free." Or "Here is some grunt work for you that no one else wants. Expect to be unsupervised, ignored, and generally exploited " People hate doing grunt work for pay and you expect them to do it for free?

  • Thanks to both of you for writing. In all fairness. the woman I report to at the LWV has been great about trying to keep me happy, so I think I need to look elsewhere to explain my feelings. I like the idea of thinking of it as a job that needs to get done.

  • In reply to Marianne Goss:

    You're welcome to the idea, Marianne. It's helped me -- not necessarily here much, but in other situations. "In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun. You find the fun and snap" -- you're different from a lot of people!

  • Thank you for expressing my feelings exactly! I've felt the same way about volunteer work. I've yet to find volunteer work that I like and find meaningful at the same time.

  • It's nice to know I'm not the only one. Thanks for commenting, Judy.

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