Volunteering

Here’s some of what you can expect from the volunteering experience. Anything not mentioned here, can easily be found by making a Google search for “Volunteering” followed by clicking on the first few hundred links.

Just The Facts

  1. Volunteer advertisements often give you a standard sales pitch.
  2. Once you've been knocked around the volunteering world for a while, you know what really goes on.
  3. Almost no one ever shares this in print or on the internet. It's left for private conversations behind closed doors.

1. Mono-Advertising

Let's start off with a Google search for "Volunteer Opportunities". Looks like a lot of links to links for that standard you are used to: hard work, rewarding, altruistic, enriching, and more - sign up today!

Visit the Peace Corps and you'll find their tag line: "The toughest job you'll ever love". Hang around some volunteers in their second year and you might hear the snarky inside joke: "The longest vacation you will ever hate"

"They told me there was shrimp cocktail at this resort"

In the mix you can find some volunteer requests that essentially warn you about what is really going to happen. Years ago I found a notice for giving out soap, toothbrushes, and supplies to street kids. They basically wrote that many kids are so paranoid they won't go within 50 feet of you. You put things down on the ground and leave. They'll come get them when you are far enough away. Essentially, don't expect to be forging meaningful bonds and saving runaways. If we could do that, there wouldn't be any street kids here anymore.

On the contrary, much of the time, volunteer advertisements are about as factually informative as that 80's Starburst TV ad where waves flood the hallways and classrooms of a school.

Pictured: NOT what happens when you bite into candy.

Through all of them, the most obvious premise of volunteer work is that you have to do some work.

2. You don't have to work THAT hard to keep your position

Sure, if you are the only adult chaperoning 20 kids through a museum, it won't be well accepted if you call in with a case of laziness.

"Those kids can figure it out. I'm playing Time Waster X today"

But if you are volunteering in a non-critical role with a group of more than 2 people, you can probably call in with some of the poorest excuses, like "something came up". (Yes, that was my staple at one extra-non-critical volunteer position. Don't give me crap either. I was blowing it off for another more critical and more irregular volunteer position.) At your job you get fired if you show up for 20 out of 40 hours each week. In the volunteer world, if you make it 2 out of 4 days in a month, they still got two days of free labor. This also goes for all your co-volunteers too. [No one was dumb enough to brag about it on the web. Hence, no reference links.]

When you do show up, plan on seeing an energetic person or two, or none. Many of these people work jobs and then volunteer. For many of them, they just left their stressful job and there's no need to rush around anymore today. I've gotten plenty of odd looks over the years for being too high energy. Or there's this woman who got told to slow down because she was making the full time employees look bad. Wait, that's not what happened, she got fired for doing that.

So if working at a slow pace and showing up half the time doesn't get you fired, what does? Watching out for people's safety:

Enter 78 year-old Murray MacGregor, former municipal citizen of the year. Murray was driving around disabled people, one of whom he was told suffered from seizures. He called to ask more about this person's condition for safety purposes, because, you know, driving down the highway with someone having a seizure in your car might be a safety issue. Then he was fired for violating the person's privacy. An attempt to reinstate him failed quickly and miserably.

"Sir, elderly drivers aren't dangerous enough. We need to put this epileptic person in your car too."

Also, you could get fired for swearing on emergency radio while fighting a fire. I imagine that if there was any appropriate time to swear, it would be when fighting a fired called the "Black Saturday Bushfire Crisis." Also, this fire had just burned half of his dairy farm and was threatening his neighbor's homes. Surely this guy was just starting out and he lost his composure. Nope, he's a volunteer captain with over 40 years experience, having responded to hundreds of emergencies. Then at least they'll let him go with a tip of their hat, right? Wrong again. His firing was accompanied by the statement: "He wasn't a suitable person to represent his brigade, let alone CFA in a senior role".

Did you catch that? That guy just lost half of his farm to a fire he was voluntarily fighting, and then he got fired afterward. That's cold.

Don't worry. If you are a police department volunteer and you make jokes about getting stars on your vest for assaulting women, you just get a reprimand. What else would you expect from a department that is investigating one of its own elderly volunteers for stealing cans of prune juice?

"Prune Juice, Dude. Prune Juice"

What else gets you a reprimand? Being a Renegade Badass:

Enter Detective John McClain (OK, so that isn't really his name). It's Larry Armes, and he's a veteran lieutenant volunteer firefighter. Responding to an emergency, when the "official" truck wouldn't start at the station, he conscripted a rookie and threw the Jaws of Life into the back of his personal pickup (presumably peeling out and muttering yippie-kai-yay under his breath). When he was about a mile from the scene he radioed in and was told to turn back. He showed up anyways and his Jaws of Life and another one were used to rescue the trapped motorist. The result? He was demoted and officially reprimanded. Why? Because:

"The Jaws of Life contains corrosive oil, which requires the equipment to be carefully stored. It's a health and safety issue."

Yes, the equipment used to tear apart wrecked cars is too delicate to be placed in the back of a civilian pickup.

"We wear these helmets to protect ourselves from the oil in the Jaws of Life"

Instead of taking this B.S., he quit.

Yeah, I think it went something like that.

All together, if you want to keep your volunteer position, it's best to do as little as possible and act like you don't really want to be there all that much. Because, after all...

3. Not everyone actually wants to be there

This is the whole idea right? Volunteer = Voluntary. Does it get any more direct than that? For some reason I'm reminded of when I was ten years old and I got that really condescending lecture on "assuming makes an ass of u and me". (For my fellow programmers out there: Volunteer != Voluntary)

Some people really are there voluntarily. Some are there semi-voluntarily. I'm referring to people who got talked into this by parents, a girlfriend/boyfriend, spouse, employer, or basically anyone in their life. It's called "positive peer pressure" according to a US government website that labels itself "the cool spot" and features a picture of an anime girl. (Protip: anywhere calling itself the cool spot, certainly isn't)

Anime Hipster, the coolest friend you'll ever have

So that person standing next to you may be there voluntarily, after they were pressured until they cracked.

Taking the next step towards involuntary volunteerism, especially for youths, are mandatory service requirements for high schools. Already common in some parts of Canada, the debate for a federal requirement is raging in the USA. Heck, if the objectivists have time to take a break from their busy day running the world to write about this, it must be important.

For a while, I was volunteering in a computer lab. It wasn't terribly exciting in general, but for a few months and exactly the minimum service time he had to complete, I was joined by a high school student. He was certainly acceptable, but he just sat around most of the time doing nothing (See Section 2). He needed his service requirement and was pressured to choose this place by his parents. He finished his requirement and left. That's it.

"Nothing Happened!"

Yes, it's a boring example, that's the point. If you have people that don't want to be there, you're left with nothing more than boring. Remember, it was the guy who really wanted to be there who jacked the Jaws of Life, saved the day, and quit in a manner that would make McBain proud.

This flaccid penis properly conveys the excitement level of a mandatory service position.

Let's take this one step further, to the people who really don't want to be there. Enter the criminal justice system. With overcrowded prisons being little more than rape therapy vacations for anyone unlucky enough to enter one, another option had to be created. What happens to celebrities who get arrested and found guilty? Community service.

Contrary to popular belief, community service sentences aren't just picking up trash on the freeway. Many people wind up next to other volunteers in public departments or private charities. Depending on where you choose to volunteer, you might wind up filling out toe tags with Lindsay Lohan (and also her nipples apparently), or worse, hanging out with Kanye West.

"No! Make sure you get a photo of ME!

If you didn't like the Kanye joke selected, I apologize. I had to choose one from a seemingly endless list. OK, here are some of the others:

"I'm gonna let you finish picking up that trash, but..."

"George Bush doesn't care about homeless people"

"I have a grammy too ya know"

"Could you please stop working and pay more attention to me"

"Pay attention to me!"

Community service isn't just for celebrities. It's for anyone who is convicted of almost anything where the judge deems that anal rape may be a bit excessive in the ways of punishment.

Will I get community service for using a watermarked photo?

You could wind up volunteering next to my ex-coworker who got caught doing some stupid stuff I can't quite remember. I think it was snatching ladies' purses.

"I recognize you for your selfless volunteer spirit."

Now that we've nailed down that some of the people don't want to be there, what's next?

4. You need to have a lot of sensitivity and tolerance

I know. I'm a jackass. Besides writing this article I'm just generally an ass in daily life, and I know it. Sometimes I can control myself, but regularly it's too much and it crosses whatever line normal society has for mildly inflammatory and severely insensitive comments about daily minutia.

I don't find this offensive

For almost everyone, and me included, when you are sitting in a room with people going through difficult times, the need to be a jackass seemingly disappears. It can be very difficult to express your empathy for them in these situations, but that is normal. In my experiences, since you are a stranger who is just volunteering a few hours each week, these people just need to talk about anything other than their problems. They need a break.

In every place I've ever been, the people on the receiving end of volunteerism don't want to be treated differently than anyone else. Trying to be super sensitive or super tolerant is what makes them feel different, and bad. Just being yourself and trying to be nice or share a laugh is one of the best things you can do, but you probably already knew that.

No, I didn't just bail out on the title of this section. You will need to be ridiculously sensitive and tolerant. But it will need to be aimed at different people.

If someone is stuck where they don't want to be (See Section 3), they often complain a lot and take it out on the people around them. Maybe like the time a head volunteer gave me the standard rant about how Mexicans are ruining the USA, for hours, on multiple days straight. Wait, that wasn't it, it was THAT EXACT SAME RANT, but with USA replaced by Britain and Mexicans replaced by Eastern Europeans. Needless to say, I ditched out of that volunteer "opportunity" as soon as possible and didn't look back. Too bad ASAP in that situation meant after three weeks.

"We need to build a fence between Britain and Eastern Europe" (World Economic Forum)

While a lot of volunteers are more tolerant than some preconceived stereotype of the average citizen, the volunteer section does not have any kind of monopoly on tolerant people nor does it always do well at keeping intolerant people out.

But this just happens to me, right? This happens regularly in random volunteer niches if you are unfortunate enough to wind up there or pass through there. Most of the time, it doesn't get publicized by anyone. Fortunately, sometimes people do publish it. Like this guy's experiences listening to co-volunteers rip on the people they are helping.

Or let's imagine a little bit about the life of "Old Dude". No one gives his name probably to protect him from an angry mob forming in front of his house and threats coming in the mail. So here he is: sitting around the house, nothing to do, getting a little tired of all those episodes of CSI:Every-Big-City-In-The-USA.

CSI Minneapolis: Has it really gone this far?

Why not volunteer at the local high school? He can get out of the house, interact with new people, and share with youngsters those core values that made him the happy well adjusted man he is today. Except when he gets to the school he finds that not everyone shares his wonderful belief system. Now let's stop the imagination and get to the reality. This guy see's something that is apparently a problem for him: a student putting up posters for the "Equal Love" rally that promotes same-sex marriage. His solution? Call the student a faggott. (Yes, that got him fired. It doesn't qualify as "doing nothing" in that situation.)

Yeah, it's pretty much like that

That's the climax of his story. From my experiences, here's what I have no problem asserting with full confidence: If you were volunteering alongside this man, you would have heard plenty of occurrences of bigotries and rants before this final incident. The final incident is the culmination. You are the unlucky person who has to hear the buildup to that moment, for however long it takes. If he never says that to the student, then he's there much longer, ruining your volunteer experience every time you have to deal with him.

This is about you being tolerant though, not other people, right? Yes. This is about you being tolerant enough to not immediately tell him, "Shut the f*ck up, b*tch!" And of course you need to be sensitive enough to realize that even though you may want to punch him in the face (at least I do), that's not going to solve the problem.

What you need to know is that these situations are very real in the volunteer world. Since people aren't at a job, sometimes they feel freer to dump their horrid opinions on you. The best options are to try and get rid of the offending person, or if they are the ones in charge, get out as fast as you can. Otherwise, a volunteer position consumes your life in the same way a bad coworker or bad boss does, and you're not even putting food on the table with this. Don't give up though. There are good positions with good people out there, somewhere.

5. Heading to the third world

Now that I've turned this into a desktop journey, let's take this trip in the direction of somewhere completely new. One of the advantages that can come along with volunteerism is adventure travel (if you like that sort of thing). There's even an entire industry that labels itself reality tourism. If you just go volunteer abroad instead, you can get that same experience without a sleazy tour guide poking children in the eyes so they cry extra hard when you walk by.

How much did this gross at the box office?

In the international community, the words Charity and Non-Profit aren't "officially" used. They are all NGOs. NGO = Non-Governmental Organization. Why give them a different name? Because lots of them don't have charity as a main priority and many of them aren't philosophically non-profit. They are businesses, and this business is booming. Welcome.

This is our annual fundraiser fun run.

First of all, if you have to pay to volunteer, it's probably not good. If you have to help in a fundraiser, that may be more legit. I'm sure you already know this, but plenty of people fall for it every year. Second, remember those not-so-hard-working volunteers in the past. Here, they are paid staff members (they might be family members too). Considering that their options might be limited to unemployment or working for an NGO, they may not be that interested in helping other people. Place on top of that the fact that many donors (or donor agencies) only check in and visit once, or nunce. What you get is an organization that can keep getting money and paying salaries by doing things that look good, instead of things that actually are good. That's how you get celebrities funding thousands of dead trees in an underdeveloped nation.

There are legitimate NGOs in the underdeveloped world, but in my experience you are going to have to be a lot more vigilant than if you were looking for volunteer opportunities in your developed world home. But finding organizations that pay employees to do not-that-much is just scratching the surface.

6. Deeper into Underdevelopment Land

If you start volunteering for a bad NGO, you probably won't see much corruption. Local people are smart enough to hide it from you. They're not going to have you go shopping with them and they're not going to have you looking over all of their receipts. Why wouldn't you go shopping with them? Because of a very common practice called "commission".

It works like this: "Hey Mr. Shop Owner. If you want me to buy goods from you, I need you to write me a receipt for more than what I actually pay you. Otherwise, I go to someone else."

If you manage to tag along it works like this: "Hey Mr. Shop Owner. This dumbass foreigner is with me today but they don't speak the local language. Same commission as always: I'll pay the full receipt now and then be back later tonight to get the extra money back."

My "I'm with gullible foreigner" t-shirt is at the cleaner

If you think you're really a badass anti-corruption machine who speaks the local language, it works like this: "Hey Mr. Shop Owner (wink)"

Actually, the guy doesn't even need to wink. The shop owner knows. Beyond that, you are bound to hear lots of rumors around your office. They are probably true.

Ever notice that the director has never bought gas for his Hummer, ever?

For most of you reading this, corruption in the underdeveloped world isn't news. But keep in mind: this is the kind of place where policemen nearly kill poor children who offer a 12 cent payment for a 25 cent extortion. This is the environment you are now in.

OK, this article is going downhill and getting really depressing really fast. The side point is this: whatever is wildly unacceptable in the developed world would probably be welcome as an ease in extremity in the underdeveloped world. That Indian kid would probably prefer having his head stomped on by a volunteer instead of having his leg amputated after being thrown from a moving train. If he survives, he may need an NGO to give him a free prosthetic leg. They may charge his mother a commission for it.

Volunteer head stomp still better than police train throw

Now back to some corruption. Even though it's fun to rip on image conscious celebrities, this is actually a case where I feel sorry for a celebrity sponsor. Luciano Pavarotti is a multi-millionaire and probably just wanted to do something nice with a small piece of the huge stacks of cash he would never be able to spend in his lifetime. So he funds the construction of a music center in war-torn Bosnia. It's not long before there is a huge corruption scandal on this project. Among the issues is an approximately $25,000 payment to the charity's co-founder, by the main construction company building the center. Yep, that's a commission. The celebrities involved became upset and pulled their support. Naturally, there are way too many news stories on this.

If you have volunteered a lot in the underdeveloped world, here is what your response might sound like: "That's it? $25,000? That guy's a bit of an underachiever."

Consider the Thai Tsunami Victim Identification Center, set up after, you guessed it, the tsunami; almost $3 million from foreign governments helped pay for it. Somehow, this operation wound up in the hands of the Royal Thai Police. You can probably see where this is going. The man in charge, Colonel Pornprasert, stole an unknown amount of money. (That's not a porn joke. It's his real name.) It's estimated to be about $1 million dollars, which gives him a corruption efficiency rating of about 33%, now that's a high achiever. In the process, he resigned and changed his name, but was eventually caught and indicted two days before his resignation went into effect. Don't worry, he got his punishment: he was fired (and nothing else) , apparently "The loss of one's police rank is considered very serious in the Royal Thai Police." No word on the missing $1mil though.

"I guess I'll just have to spend my unemployed days making little money houses"

This makes me nostalgic for small North American towns where the folks are friendly and the only problem is when a woman gets accused of making food bank recipients donate money in order to get food.

7. Bringing it Back Home

So now you're back in your developed world home, and if you're like me, you need both your fingers and toes to count the number of times you've had dysentery in the past two years. (A disease I previously only knew about from Oregon Trail.) What now? Memories. But the story doesn't end here.

I'm sorry! I didn't know it was contagious.

In between all the corruption and idleness, remember that great little village of wonderful people? The ones who take a pail out to a muddy ditch to get their drinking water every day? You should be able to do something about that, right? You can fix that, definitely.

While the "definitely" part is getting ahead of ourselves, yes, you can fix that. Just know what you are signing up for. In this case, a reasonable expectation for the completion of a clean drinking water well is about 2 to 3 years. Yes, that one well is probably going to take you longer than an entire Peace Corps assignment. Don't forget, you're going to need some water filters too, and an education component to teach them how to use the water filters, and a local water pricing scheme so they'll have enough money saved up to replace the well pump after 5 years, and a... ...we're getting way ahead of ourselves now, but you get the idea.

Sure, you might be able to finish the well (and everything else) sooner, but you're not making schedules and quoting prices as a defense contractor. You are making a reasonable goal that can be reached.

For brevity, I'm going to cue up the montage scene now. To save money on royalties, Chariots of Fire is the song for this montage in the movie of your life.

Click "Open in New Tab" and come back to this page.

Look, there you are: ...raising money for 1 year, contacting local NGOs, researching foreign well drillers, researching water filters, going back to the village to talk to people in person, working together with an established group of volunteers under another organization, staying up until 3am writing funding proposals, buying sample water filters and testing them out, having everything ready, going to the village and failing miserably, returning home borderline suicidal, starting halfway over again, doing all those things you just did 6 months ago, apologizing to donors and telling them that you'll fix everything, staying up until 6am re-researching everything, getting an email where a village representative tells you for the first time that there's already a well there and it was just damaged and hidden from your view and everyone knew about it but they didn't think to tell you because they thought it was permanently broken and therefore you didn't need to know, going back to the village, fixing their well, distributing water filters, teaching people how to use them...

So how long did that montage actually span. I would guess 2 years and 6 months. [I just drilled a f*cking well, I have dysentery, and I'm tired. Find your own f*cking reference where it took someone else that long.]

Yes, the fact that you were doing this got you laid by someone who was really impressed. But, with all this extra work it probably only got you laid a few times because you are now like the other people in society who are too busy for sex. Sorry, had to ruin that hope with more reality.

"I have a better Idea! I'm going to South by Southwest. It's a much easier way to get laid."

But as we fade back the music cuts out (close that other tab now) and there you are at the final celebration in the village.

To understand what's going on at this village celebration, take a look at what game designers intentionally add to their games to keep you addicted. It says that in order to have satisfaction you need the following things: Autonomy, Complexity, and Connection between Effort and Reward.

You chose which village you were going to work in and while you worked with lots of other people, this is probably more autonomy than you are going to see at your job. (I'm not being smug. This is way more autonomy than I see at my job. That's one reason why I like it.)

Complexity? Remember that montage? If anyone ever tells you that this kind of work is not sufficiently complex for them, they are just trying to look smarter than they are. Or they intentionally moved themselves into a non-autonomous non-complex role so that they could talk about how good they are at the simplistic task they are doing.

The final lynch pin is the connection between effort and reward. This is what comes after all that work, when you are cutting a ribbon. Yes, there is probably going to be a very literal ribbon cutting ceremony, along with music, dancing, food, and lots of shining happy people holding hands (due to royalty costs, that song will not be included in the movie of your life). This is where we cue the dopamine.

I'm going to a ribbon cutting ceremony in my mind

From reading cracked.com, I've learned about dopamine, and dopamine, and dopamine, and dopamine, and dopamine, and dopamine, and dopamine, and of course, dopamine.

Do we really have to explain what this does, again?

So why put up with all the crap above just to get to a dopamine fix? After all:

"the real world's system of rewards is so much more slow and cruel than we expected it to be. In that, gaming is no different from other forms of mental escape, from sports fandom to moonshine."

Let's use that last line to make sure we don't pick on gaming. After all, I like gaming. It's fun in moderation, just like moonshine. (Don't get me started on local village moonshine). The truth is (my opinionated truth is) that reality is better than fantasy.

It's moot whether that fantasy is: your character's ability to bang girls at the tavern with his high charm level, considering a pro-athlete your friend because he's in your living room every Sunday, or chasing a purple dragon you see after shooting up heroin. Humanitarians are not immune. Sometimes that fantasy can be thinking you've helped people when you've actually hurt them by giving them millions of poisoned water wells.

This isn't real life?

But let's get back to our village celebration. You've had over 2 years of glorious autonomy and extreme complexity. Today is when you get to connect effort to reward, and you're also at a giant agape party. Cue the standard amount of dopamine. Now multiply it because people have evolved to enjoy helping other people [Dawkins]. Apply directly to the brain. Repeat (after 3 years of more work).

In closing, there is something else to add: flashbacks. No, not when you crack your neck and think you get a little LSD high. I've never had a little flashback dopamine rush when remembering the first time I found the warp zone in Super Mario Brothers when I was 12 years old (although it gave me one heck of a rush at the time.) The nice thing about the Volunteer dopamine rush is that the flashbacks can be pleasant. You don't have to take my word for it, just ask some old guru dude who is wise and stuff (#13 on the list). Or you could ask someone who may have impersonated him instead.

8. Wrapping it All Up

So why did I post this semi-diatribe about charity and the volunteerism experience? Because for the most part, no one else does. When I signed up for this topic, I got an automated email from Cracked.com saying "We're looking forward to reading everything we really need to know about Volunteering". Most of the volunteer information already out there is overwhelmingly idealistic and readily available. This is everything else you need to know, at least for starters. Hopefully this filled in most of the gaps for you. The news article references come from the outrage-inducing section of any news service. I am especially thankful to the few bloggers who put up their own realistic yet negative experiences, because they're doing something that few people do.

Back to the final points: Depending on your involvement in volunteering, you may know some of these things. When I first started volunteering I was probably way too young to understand things like corruption in foreign police forces but I was old enough to understand when I was surrounded by intolerant bigots. Still, I had to trip over a lot of these rocks before I saw them in my path.

I love volunteering and I will never stop. It's my favorite dopamine fix. Hopefully you will choose to get involved with volunteerism and hopefully this will help you avoid some of the pitfalls along the way. Also, hopefully it will make you aware of the un-instant gratification this industry offers and the result will be you sticking it out until the end, where the reward is amazing. Sometimes things are more bearable if you know to expect them. The overwhelming majority of volunteers actually ARE awesome people and I've made a lot of friends I never would have met otherwise.

Finally, I hope this made you laugh a little along the way.

If not, here's one last attempt. I just feel sorry for the explicitly named man misidentified in the original news report. How many people only read the first article and harassed him for something he didn't even do? But that's the risk of volunteering.

Also, here's one final headline: (Volunteer) Soldiers involved in gigolo scam to be reprimanded. Poor bastards, at least they didn't get fired.