Work to be done?
July 21, 2009 6:41 PM   Subscribe

I was excited about volunteering here -- now I'm just demoralized. How to get back on track and do something meaningful for the next two weeks I'm here?

I'm living away from home for a month to work on a volunteer project with a group in Philadelphia that I like a whole lot. I'd planned this for awhile, and was really looking forward to it, but now it looks like things are kind of grinding to a halt, and I'm not sure whether to stick it out or just go.The project involves campaign / advocacy work, which I've never done before, but which I was excited to learn about.

I was set to come work on a project back in June, but there was a lot of miscommunication on the front end about what we were going to do, and when it was going to happen, --- compounded with not being able to find housing, and just having a lot of stuff happen in the meantime. I don't live in Philly or have any friends here, and am basically living off savings, which made the whole process really unpleasant and stressful

Basically, I wound up deciding to stay for less time (through July), and do a smaller scale project, since we got started a little late. I'm halfway through, and I feel like what I'm working on just doesn't matter very much. The person I'm working with has basically dropped all the stuff we were originally going to work on --- so now I'm checking in with someone on a project that kind of doesn't exist, and which is largely peripheral to the actual work that's going on. (It's basically emailing a bunch of people to get them to sign a letter to support a bill that's coming up for a vote -- but it's targeted to a pretty small group, and not so central to what's actually going on)

This is all well and good -- mostly, I wanted to come here to learn a little bit about the organization -- but I'd like to be helping out in a more direct way, since I'm here for another few weeks. I asked today if there was any more immediate campaign work that needed to be done that I could help with, and basically got blown off --- the woman I was going to be working with basically said they were going to handle things on their end --- which makes it even harder to justify being here, since there's no actual "work" to be done.

That's a long explanation. Any suggestions for how to fix this? Should I just go? I'm pretty lonely anyway, and not having any real work to do isn't making me crazy! Alternately, is there a better way to approach them, to figure out useful ways to be involved? I don't know anything about campaign work (that was kind of the point of me coming here) so I'm a little lost as to projects I can suggest --- any feedback would be helpful here!

Thanks in advance for all your help!
posted by puckish to Work & Money (6 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I would try condensing this post into an email to the person or persons you think is the most likely to help you out. Maybe escalate a level since you've already been brushed off by I'm assuming the most direct contact.
Something like "Hey guys, I came all the way here specifically to work on this project. I took these last few months off my job and I'm living off savings to help you guys. If you really have nothing for me to do, I will have to go home. However I would much rather be an active particpant for my remaining time. Is there really and truly no more active way for me to be involved? Can we schedule a time to brainstorm some projects for me?"
posted by amethysts at 7:38 PM on July 21, 2009 [2 favorites]

Maybe others can come up with better suggestions, but if I were you, I'd cut my losses and leave now. You're spending your own money to be there and not getting any sort of beneficial experience. You could offer to do the emailing task remotely, so you wouldn't be screwing them over. Are there any politicians or advocacy groups who operate closer to home that you'd like to work for? Contact them and see if you can do some volunteering for the rest of the summer. You might end up doing something more interesting, and worst case scenario, at least you can live at home and not deplete your savings.
posted by emd3737 at 8:15 PM on July 21, 2009

Sadly, your experience as a volunteer is not uncommon. Too often, organizations waste volunteer time and resources precisely because there is no economic penalty to them for doing so. If you stay, there is no opportunity cost to them, for wasting more of your time and money. If you go, you at least make some small statement to them regarding the respect they should have for volunteers and donated resources; perhaps, your departure will, in some small way, improve their management of some other, future volunteer. Go, and don't look back.
posted by paulsc at 11:33 PM on July 21, 2009

You say what you are working on is peripheral to the work of the organization, but are you really sure about that? Emailing a bunch of people to get them to sign a letter to support a bill that's coming up for a vote doesn't sound that out of line with what you thought you would be doing. If you really think it is, then I would follow amethysts advice, and then hopefully try to find a way to stick it out and do something useful with the week and a half remaining time.

In defense of the organization, if you were volunteering where I work, we would have a hard time coming up with a volunteer project limited to one month, and would have probably thrown you onto an existing project.

Also, emd3737's advice is not a bad option for the remaining part of your summer. I would start checking around about this now: Are there any politicians or advocacy groups who operate closer to home that you'd like to work for? Contact them and see if you can do some volunteering for the rest of the summer.
posted by gudrun at 1:07 AM on July 22, 2009

The issue of whether you are doing important work or not is actually beside the point, I think. If you honestly feel like you aren't getting anywhere, if you are becoming demoralised or feel like you aren't learning anything or helping anyone, then you probably aren't.

I have had similar situations in the past and my advice is to go but not be put off in future. There are better organisations out there who would value your time, and would be grateful to you for using your own money to be there. They would use you to much better effect if you were to offer your services to them. This isn't a question of you not having the nuts to stick out a difficult situation - this is a question of them wasting your time. You sound like you want to go, so what's really stopping you?
posted by marmaduke_yaverland at 5:36 AM on July 22, 2009

It's not their fault, really -- it's a small organization, there was a lot of miscommunication up front (on my part, as well as theirs), and yeah, a month is hard to plan for.

Anyway, I took the advice upthread and emailed directly, so we'll see what happens! My losses aren't very big -- and Philly's a nice place! So it's OK, if ultimately it gets chalked to experience...

Thanks for all your advice!
posted by puckish at 6:17 AM on July 22, 2009

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