day #4 – Some critical thoughts concerning volunteer work

A couple of weeks ago, when I decided to register for volunteering on the conference, I did so, because, I wanted some »hands-on« connections with the people organizing the event. I also thought helping out, would make me feel more involved, than just visiting. It was said, it would be possible to volunteer before or/and during the conference. I felt it would be too much for me to focus on work and content during the conference, so I told them, I was ready to help out only before the conference, with whatever is necessary. And I meant it. I was not expecting any challenging work or a special learning experience, I was ready to fill in as needed. But after two days in the office I’m a bit tired of helping out and I had to ask myself why that could happen. I tried to write down some ideas.

1) I was given a work, that was very time-consuming and I was afflicted by serious doubts, that this was of any use or rather that there would be a much more efficient solution for the problem. I tried to intervene, but was brushed off by the usual »that’s, how we did it« argument. That is hard to argue.

2) Parts of the job touched my professional expertise. I had designed and had printed lots of stickers in my life. But I would not ask a person to do ripping, counting and piling hundreds of them by hand, because these tasks can easily be automated by a print office. Why not order these stickers in the way you finally need them? The answer was, there was a price difference. But not taking into account the work hours of several intelligent people (we were like five or six at the time) sitting there for hours and doing this, seems not such a good strategy. And even in terms of money, if the volunteers work is »free« for the foundation, retaining these volunteers, appealing them to ongoing commitment looks different to me. And the saving appears a fallacy on the long term.

3) When I finally got to see the printed program at the end of the day, I thought, here is, where my work could have been a serious benefit for the event. I could have done better with that. I know design is vulnerable field, where you cannot just jump in and make things different, because people related, feel highly emotional about it. But that’s not what I meant. Even in a given design I could have done a better craft type setting. Improving the clearness and legibility, making it more pleasant to use and more easy to find your way through. This is a handcraft I learned. But this was obviously not a volunteers work taken into account. (I was asked couple of weeks before, what my skills are and I told I was a graphic designer, because usually that’s a highly needed capacity for all kind of events. Nobody ever referred to it.)

There seems to be a danger about being a volunteer, that makes you a person without experiences or competencies in the eyes of others. The more mindless the work is, you are asked to do, the worse this effect appears to happen. There is no way in ripping stickers and piling them by hundreds to show any of your real capacities. As hard as it seems to be in a usual lack of time: trying to get to know the person, to find a place where the volunteers contribution is most valuable for the project and the volunteer finds himself useful, seems to be unavoidable for mutual satisfaction and by this for long term commitments.

I don’t want to be misunderstood. I highly valuate and respect the work the operations manager is doing, coordinating all the volunteers work. This text is not meant to pass criticism on her work or even person. It is purely my personal attempt to reflect on my discontent and to turn it into some insights for the future, no matter what position (could be the coordinating one) I will find myself in.

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