A Guest Blog Post by Jeffrey Chin, CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Mass/Metrowest
Volunteering is not easy, nor necessarily convenient. It often results from the interplay of some pretty compelling internal forces: the desire to serve others (sometimes through personal sacrifice of time and attention), and the desire to feel effective, useful, or helpful. While most would acknowledge the noble endeavor that is volunteering, few engage in a dialogue about what it means to do it well. Or effectively. Or with the best type of impact.
Many of you know that years ago I volunteered to join the US Navy as a reserve officer. While there are certainly sacrifices of time (including time away from family) and a willingness to serve others that is paramount for service members, the ideal of volunteerism can perhaps be best embodied through the types of volunteer activities that most of us have an opportunity to engage in — working at a shelter, spending time at soup kitchen, becoming a mentor to a child.
When I first volunteered many years ago, I was not ready. Nor was I “READY”. What does this mean, exactly? During this #NationalVolunteerMonth we here at Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Mass/Metrowest celebrate the best sources of strength, support, and talent for our mission: our legions of volunteers. Many of these volunteers know firsthand the sacrifice, commitment, and dedication needed to be a good volunteer…something I learned years after my first experience as a volunteer for a community human services agency.
Those who know me can attest that I am a true believer in balance and the idea that there are dual components that can make every whole — the proverbial yin-and-yang that combine to make something so much more than a sum of its pieces. I find that complementary parts often make a more resilient and powerful team, a more dynamic idea, a more complete enterprise, a better mission, or deeper relationship …much like our Big Brother/Sister – Little Brother/Sister matches.
The best mentors — indeed, the best volunteers — for a mission-driven organization such as ours not only express a desire to help others, but also embody and understand the crucial traits and characteristics that make their volunteerism so meaningful and effective for their cause. Like many things in life, there are multiple facets to these traits and characteristics, including both the mental and physical aspects of being ready to make an impact through volunteering. It’s also about being “R.E.A.D.Y.”
What does being READY mean? Each letter represents two equally important personal qualities that truly set great volunteers apart from others. Being “READY” means being Responsive, Eager, Able, Daring, and saying Yes; it also means being Reliable, Enthusiastic, Available, Deliberate, and having a Yearn-to-learn. Let’s explore through the lens of some important lessons I learned during my first experiences in service:
Responsive & Reliable. Volunteers often become involved in a cause or mission because they are trying to respond to a call to action. Their initial responsiveness provides them and their mission an opportunity to address an issue — a project needs to be completed, a committee needs a new member, a child needs a mentor. When I was 20 years old I volunteered at a human service agency because a) I was asked to help, and b) I believed in serving others (and still do). I truly believed I was making an impact by responding to a call to action, as I helped this agency by cleaning/maintaining their facilities, I helped stock their food pantry, and I spent time with their residents. I was making a difference. However, as a 20-year-old with (perhaps) too many commitments, and a temperamental 1977 Chevy Blazer that failed to work every other day, I had an attendance record that was as spotty as some US Senators’ voting attendance record. In other words, I was unreliable in both my attendance and my punctuality…partially because I couldn’t get out of my own way as a college kid navigating through life, and partially because I didn’t appreciate the hallmark tenet of a good volunteer: showing up when you’re expected to show up — no matter what.
Eager and Enthusiastic. Most volunteers become volunteers because they are eager to help, or feel compelled to offer some sort of support to a cause. The best volunteers demonstrate genuine eagerness to serve through their positive demeanor and helpful behaviors while volunteering, and appear authentically enthusiastic about what they are doing to help their favorite mission-driven organization. This is not to say that all volunteers should exhibit a false facade of happiness each time they show up, but the best volunteers understand that their mentality and outward display of enthusiasm can make or break the experience for all…especially if you are volunteering your time by spending it with another person receiving services (i.e., mentees, human service clients, homeless residents, etc.). Volunteers often help energize and ignite an organization’s operations, just by the sheer positive energy they bring to their service. During my first volunteer experience at a group home for mentally ill residents I was once asked to don the Easter Bunny costume to help pass out candy during an activity. Being a (too) proud Generation X male, I felt embarrassed to wear the costume at the time, and it showed in my “performance”. My lackluster attitude resulted in a less-than-enjoyable experience for the residents, and eventually another volunteer (Jake) was asked to take over the candy distribution duties. When I saw how Jake swallowed his pride and exuded authentic enthusiasm in his “performance” as the Easter Bunny, I realized what a difference it made for the group home — both the residents and the staff. Attitude goes a long way, for the volunteer’s sake especially. Not exactly “fake-it-till-you-make-it“, but you get the idea.
Able and Available. These are concepts taken from my Navy experience — as a reservist especially, we are asked to ALWAYS be physically able to perform our duties, and ready/available to deploy when needed. This is true for other types of volunteers as well, as being personally able to perform your volunteer duties goes hand-in-hand with your reliability to the organization. Moreover, being able also means being capable and talented in the way that organization needs you — it might not be a good idea to volunteer for Habitat for Humanity if you have never picked up a construction tool, or volunteer at a youth camp if you aren’t particularly adept at working with children. It is sort of like the nonprofit version of fitting the proverbial square peg in a round hole. Similarly, being available for an organization doesn’t mean a boundary-less expectation of being at their beck-and-call, but rather crafting a relationship that allows for service when it is needed most. This may mean offering a range of times / opportunities to help, but it beats the “I can only do Sunday mornings from 10am-11am” ‘offers’ of help. The best volunteers are not only generous with their time, but also flexible enough to be available in a meaningful way. Of course, some organizations are so in need of volunteer help that they may bend over backwards to accommodate any unorthodox times.
Daring and Deliberate. One of the values we hold dear at Big Brothers Big Sisters is the idea of mentors & mentees expanding each other’s horizons and working through comfort zones…in a word, being daring. Effective and impactful volunteers not only offer themselves as a resource to the organization, but also are daring enough to seize the opportunity to stretch themselves in meaningful ways. Part of my failing as the Easter Bunny stemmed from my reluctance to speak to the group in such a large forum, due to my fear and insecurities about speaking to large groups. But that experience – realized years later — helped to launch my quest to become a better and more confident public speaker…a skill that comes in handy today. Additionally, the most successful volunteers approach their work with intentionality and a certain level of planfulness; rarely do they fly by the seat of their pants. This is not to say that everything must be planned or mapped out for it to be a successful volunteer activity, or that there is no room for spontaneity. But the most impactful volunteer experiences (for both the volunteer and for the organization) are ones that are approached with some thoughtfulness and care — a more deliberate manner that includes purposeful thinking about how best to utilize a volunteer’s strengths, passion, and talents. When a volunteer is deliberate in their approach to the work, it can enhance the sense of preparedness they may feel going into the volunteer situation, which will help it feel more successful because of the self-assuredness that it brings.
Yes and Yearn to Learn. Most volunteers start by saying “yes” to an opportunity, and they try to help at least once. But most organizations contend that the most effective volunteers are the ones who repeatedly start every experience with a “can-do” mentality — even if it’s something new or foreign to them. Their attitude of “Yes, we can try this”, or “Yes, we can do this!” fuels the inherent drive found in most mission-driven organizations — the heart of why we do what we do — the belief that our mission deserves people to participate and actively try to make it work. As the saying goes, starting with “Yes” can make a big difference…as can a genuine desire to learn more about one’s self and others. This curiosity and “yearn-to-learn” can open up volunteers to so many new possibilities, especially those who volunteer long term with other people involved in the service — like mentoring. Volunteering can be and should be an exercise in learning more about yourself, more about others in need, and more about the world.
We are truly blessed here at Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Mass/Metrowest to have so many wonderful volunteers who demonstrate that they are indeed “READY” to make a difference. As we conclude and celebrate this #NationalVolunteerMonth, it is important to note the profound impact that volunteers and volunteerism have on our organizations, our communities, and our selves. THANK YOU to ALL our incredible volunteers.
I will leave you with this tremendous video highlighting one of our incredible volunteers, Jon. He is not only a Big Brother for our agency, but also serves as a volunteer Board Member. There is no one more READY than Jon. Enjoy!