How to make the most of your volunteer experience

Wednesday, 8 August @ 9:58 PM

My work with Philanthropegie is all about making a difference.  More specifically, it’s about helping others to make a difference – and volunteering plays a big role in this arena.  That must have been on my mind the other day when I read a great article by Rick Steves – “How to make the most of your European trip.”   As soon as I finished the article, I found myself drafting this article on how to make the most of volunteer opportunities.  Here we go…

Rick says – “Be ready to ad-lib, to be imaginative while conquering surprise challenges.  Make an art out of taking the unexpected in stride. If your must-see cathedral is covered with scaffolding, look the other way: climb its bell tower for an unforgettable view over the town. If your favorite artist’s masterpiece is out on loan, take a tour of his runner-up works. Good travelers–like skiers bending their knees to make moguls more fun–enjoy the bumps in the road.”

My take on this… View challenges as opportunities.   There’s a really good chance that volunteer projects won’t go exactly to plan.  Just go with it.  If the project you really wanted to be a part of has all the volunteer support it needs,  just ask for another project to dig into.  Good volunteers understand that whatever challenges they might face as they volunteer are likely insignificant when compared to the challenges of the people they are trying to serve.

Rick says – “Some travelers actively cultivate pre-trip anxiety, coming up with all kinds of reasons to be stressed. Don’t be a creative worrier.  Many of my richest travel experiences have been the result of seemingly terrible mishaps: a lost passport in Slovenia, having to find a doctor in Ireland, a blowout in Portugal, a moped accident on Corfu. In each instance, not only did things turn out alright, but I made new friends and added to my stack of fond memories. For me, this is the essence of travel.”

From a volunteering perspective… I can honestly say that many of my richest volunteer experiences were laced with big challenges: a last minute opportunity to accompany 165 junior & senior high students on a week-long mission trip meant having to change lots of plans at work.  A request to quickly join a group as they made final preparations for travel to South Africa… a flailing fundraiser that fell into my lap very late in the game.  In each instance, I found myself making a difference in ways I had never envisioned.  Bottom line–Embrace unexpected opportunities to serve.

Rick says – ‘Don’t complicate your trip: simplify!  Travelers can get stressed or waste time over the silliest things, which, in their niggling ways, can suffocate a happy holiday. Why stand in a long line at the post office when it’s a gloriously sunny day in the Alps, or why spoil a picnic by worrying the whole time about grass stains? Concerns like these are outlawed in my travels.”

My volunteer rule – Don’t sweat the details!  Too often, volunteers get stressed about details that really shouldn’t matter – which can really get in the way of a great opportunity to give back. Why stress over the approach the volunteer leader is taking when doing it their way is still going to change people’s lives, or why spoil a great group volunteering event by wishing you were with your friends who ended up on another team?  Go with the flow.

Rick says – “Avoid unnecessary burdens.  Leave behind the clunky camera gear, inflatable hangers, fanny packs, immersion heaters, and rolls of duct tape. You don’t need a calculator to convert currencies to the third digit, or admission vouchers for sights you’ll never visit. Travel more like Gandhi–with simple clothes and open eyes.”

Volunteers – Avoid unnecessary distractions.  Leave behind the work, the smart phone and the to-do list.  They will all be there when you’re done.  You likely spend a small portion of your time in volunteer opportunities.  When you’re in volunteer mode – give it all that you’ve got.

Rick says – “If you’re worried about hurdling the language barrier, use a paper and pencil, charades, or whatever it takes to be understood. Don’t be afraid to butcher the language.  If you’re lost, or just lonely and in need of human contact, take out a map and look lost. You’ll get help. Perceive friendliness and you’ll find it.”

Many volunteer opportunities put you in unfamiliar territory.  If you’re worried about cultural barriers, watch how others are handing situations.  Don’t be afraid to reach out.  As long as you’re thoughtful, caring and compassionate, it will all work out in the end.  I once held my hands out to a little African boy to see if he wanted to join the others who were dancing to the music.  He thought I was asking for his sandwich (the only meal he was likely to have that day) and he didn’t hesitate an instant before offering it to me.  We finally figured out what each other was trying to say – he finished eating and we had a great time dancing.  I’m still blown away when I think about his giving heart.

Rick says – “A fundamental aim in my travels is to have meaningful contact with local people. When an opportunity presents itself, I jump on it. Driving by a random cheese festival in Sicily? Stop the car, get out, and eat cheese. Hiking through England’s Lakes District and popping into a pub for a drink? Don’t sit alone at a table–take a spot at the bar, where locals hang out to talk. Dinnertime in Mostar, Bosnia? Turn away from the cutesy Old Town and be the first American tourist to eat in a new local eatery.”

I believe that one of the great benefits of volunteering is the opportunity for meaningful contact with some pretty amazing people. When you see a chance for meaningful contact – jump on it.  Volunteering along someone you’ve never met?  Ask them what drew them to the cause?  Have a one-on-one moment with the volunteer leader?  Ask them what drives them to commit so much of their life to making a difference?  You can learn so much about people, about giving back and about yourself by listening to what others have to say about volunteer experiences.

Rick says – “Too many people play it safe with their travels: They follow the conventions, and end up with precious little to write home about. Be a catalyst for adventure and excitement. Feel privileged to walk the vibrant streets of Europe as a student–not as a judge. Be open-minded.  Absorb, accept, and learn.”

I find that too many people play it safe with their philanthropic efforts: They think about getting involved, they take time to learn about organizations, they may even make contributions (always welcome, of course),  but they’re just not sure about getting involved.  In the end, they have little or no opportunity to know what it feels like to truly make a difference in someone’s life.  Be a catalyst for change. Feel privileged to walk alongside those who are seeking to make a difference.  Be brave. 

When I’m volunteering, I’m often doing things that seem far removed from the people I’m trying to help.  It’s time like these that it’s important to understand that making a difference is what’s most important.  After all, if the only people who volunteered were the ones who wanted to do the “fun stuff,” who would do all the other work that’s required to sustain a positive change for those in need?  Dig in.  Give what is needed.  And get your “warm fuzzy” from knowing that your contribution is making a difference.

A good example – I just spent 3 days in Cape Town with a nonprofit group who is focused on restoring hope in southern Africa.  Out of the three days we spent together, we spent only two hours with the people we are committed to serve.  Now, while I would have loved to spend more time working alongside the amazing people in settlements in and around Cape Town – that wasn’t really why I was there.  As a member of the board of directors, my role during these three days was to contribute to the vision, strategy and future evolution of the organization that is on the ground in southern Africa. I had to remind myself that, how I felt about the volunteer work itself was far less important than the difference it would make in the lives of others.

Rick says – ‘Much of the success of your trip will depend on the attitude you pack. If you can think positively, travel smartly, adapt well, and connect with the culture, you’ll have a truly rich European trip. So raise your travel dreams to their upright and locked positions, and let yourself fly away.”

I find that the true impact of volunteering depends, in large part, on the attitude you bring to the experience. If you’re open minded, if you volunteer selflessly, if you embrace differences and challenges as opportunities to learn and grow – you’ll have a truly rich volunteer experience. And you’ll make a meaningful difference in the world along the way.

Here’s to a great volunteer experience – or, a wonderful European vacation!


Ric Leutwyler

Many thanks to Rick Steves for his inspiration and for his support in leveraging his message.

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