Strategies and Methods for Coping With a Sucky Volunteer Position
October 8, 2013 3:06 PM   Subscribe

How can I better cope with being treated as an undervalued employee when I am only a volunteer?

I am in second year of a volunteer position.

In the beginning I was idealistic and enthusiastic. I learned pretty quickly that I would have little influence. New ideas or not well received. Maintaining the status quo is expected. I am using identical fundraising methods that have been used for years because that is what is comfortable for administration. I am micromanaged to the extreme when I should not be. The micromanagers have no authority to manage me but feel compelled to do so because my volunteer work is on their campus and benefits their population.

I am treated as an employee and not as a volunteer. I am a grunt who is putting in a lot of hard work. Being the grunt person is fine, if it were labeled and described as such. I am not adverse to doing menial work if it's for a good cause, but I am in a position where I am supposed to lead, inspire, advocate for kids, and come up with new ideas. I have a family and a real job. I am putting in several hours per week in my volunteer position and have little support when it comes to other volunteers.

This is my last year. In May the volunteering will be over. I am disillusioned and I feel very underappreciated. I am not naive and I don't feel like I am not thin-skinned. I know that volunteer work is not lunching with the ladies and is often not appreciated. I don't need to be constantly stroked, not in the least, but I would like to feel less like an employee.

Just today, at a fundraiser I did not wish to conduct again (I wanted to try something new but went with it and had a good attitude anyway), the "administration" comes to me, tells me she is going to make a call out to people to remind them of our fundraiser. I replied in a friendly way. I said something like, "Oh great idea. That will be good". I am pretty sure she wanted me to thank her for making a call. She (the mircomanager extraordinaire) kind of paused and looked at me and seemed to expect a thank you. I'm thinking, she is the paid employee, she is the dictator when she shouldn't be, her campus benefits from these funds raised. Why does she need to be thanked by me? Who is thanking me for coordinating this fundraising project and working to keep this volunteer organization afloat? We have three major fundraisers this year, monthly board meetings, general meetings, and lots and lots of busy, tedious work -- lots of clerical stuff and chasing people down. I am tired, unenthused, and feel like I would be more enthusiastic if I were treated less like an employee, and if the rest of our small group of volunteer members could have a tiny say in how things are run.

In this particular organization, the members are supposed to have more autonomy. They are not to be managed by employees. Not only am I upset that I volunteer for a place that is ungrateful (not only does the administration treat me as an employee, other faculty and staff do as well), I feel like the funds raised are misused in a lot of ways and board members are not permitted to implement new ideas because administration frowns upon it and outright discourages it. Last year I worked very hard, maintained the highest professionalism, and raised a ton of money. This year I want to tell them to take their volunteer job and shove it.

My questions:

How can I better cope with being treated as an undervalued employee when I am only a volunteer?

How can I volunteer for the remainder of the year and come up with ways to be less resentful and have a better attitude about volunteering when I have grown extremely cynical and pissed?

Is there anything I can say or do to remind people that I am a volunteer and I am sacrificing my time and energy?

I would like to resign but afraid that I don't have the guts to do so. The position is a two-year term (currently my last year) and I do not wish to bail out of a commitment.
posted by Fairchild to Human Relations (20 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
This year I want to tell them to take their volunteer job and shove it.

This is what you should do.

If it makes you feel better, they broke their side of the commitment first.
posted by corvine at 3:12 PM on October 8, 2013 [11 favorites]

You wouldn't lack the "guts" to quit a sucky job, would you? So why not quit this as well? I would if I were in your position.

For even more "fun" (although it might take additional guts), you could call a meeting with the "administration" and tell her/him/them pretty much what you told us here and ask what they plan to do about it. If their reaction is "nothing" or hostile, you could then quit on the spot anyway.
posted by Juffo-Wup at 3:18 PM on October 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

Jesus, just quit. I mean, I admire your desire to not break a commitment, but that doesn't mean you have to keep that to your detriment. Take your volunteer time and energy and give it to an org that won't treat you like shit.
posted by rtha at 3:20 PM on October 8, 2013 [23 favorites]

Indeed...organizations that treat their volunteers badly don't deserve volunteers.

You should sit down with the person who is responsible for running the volunteer program and explain to them what your current experience is and why that's unacceptable. You should come to that meeting with some ideas for positive solutions. If they're willing to implement them or work out a solution, stay. If not, give them two weeks and leave.

I'm sure if they weren't happy with you they'd ask you to leave and wouldn't think twice about any commitment.

If you are worried about how this might look on a resume or worried about burning bridges, don't let that stop you. You don't have to explain why you left an organization unless someone asks and it's perfectly acceptable to tactful and truthful about why you left.
posted by brookeb at 3:22 PM on October 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

What are you getting out of this? Why stay until May when you can go elsewhere now and it will be infinitely better (or maybe take a break for a while and look after yourself).
posted by heyjude at 3:23 PM on October 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

I've been there. I held in for several years of feeling underappreciated in a high-pressure, high-demand volunteer position until a health situation made cutting down my involvement to near-zero unavoidable. And let me tell you, I wish I'd quit long before.

If it's possible, you can offer to talk with the new volunteer(s) about the position, maybe be available for some training with whoever takes over. But make it clear that you are on your way out.
posted by pie ninja at 3:24 PM on October 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: You should sit down with the person who is responsible for running the volunteer program and explain to them what your current experience is and why that's unacceptable.

I should clarify that I am the person who is responsible for running the volunteer program. I'm in charge, but not really...

Thank you so much for answers so far.
posted by Fairchild at 3:25 PM on October 8, 2013

Absolutely, just get out. Tell them that the position has not been what you expected, you don't feel that your contribution is managed effectively, and you are no longer willing to spend your time and energy on them.
posted by rpfields at 3:26 PM on October 8, 2013 [4 favorites]

I am the person who is responsible for running the volunteer program

No you are not, it sounds like you are in charge of running the volunteer programme according to someone/some committee's wishes. They don't deserve you and they are unwilling to use your talents productively. Lots of places are crying for committed volunteers that they value. Have one conversation with the person/committee that is your road block and make your decision during the meeting; if you think they will really follow through on what they say this time have firm timelines - "this new fundraising idea of mine will be implemented in two weeks, this out-date fundraiser will be cancelled immediately" etc and bail if they bail first. Positive assertiveness is an important trait in volunteering if you want to be an effective advocate for people that are being served by your volunteering.
posted by saucysault at 3:35 PM on October 8, 2013 [5 favorites]

If you're really not quitting only because you don't have the guts to quit, then get over it and quit.

Otherwise, your script goes something like this:

"I took this position as XYZ because I particularly wanted to X and Y and Z. I want to continue until (when you agreed), but there doesn't seem to be room here for an XYZ, only for a (dogsbody and maker of tea). Do you really want an XYZ in this organisation?"

Then you wait through the very long silence and don't say a word until someone answers the question.

If they say "No", then you say "Thank you for being honest with me. I'll have a handover document for my replacement ready by Tuesday". If they say "Yes", then you tell them what that will entail, get to it and don't be intimidated by anyone.
posted by emilyw at 3:48 PM on October 8, 2013 [5 favorites]

An unpaid volunteer running volunteer programs at a university campus? I worry for the future of your entire organization and urge you to go to HR at once with documentary evidence of how you have been treated. There is a major problem with protectionist mentality in fundraising direction. You are a threat to their way of life. You and your successors deserve a bright future, this director needs a deserved dressing down, and you should know what you are really worth to this university.

I can understand feeling overwhelmed by the commitment to a large organization. It seems like there is no one to turn to because the fundraising office maintains a highly pointless "independence" from academe. In fact, it is this wall that prevents fundraising from being more effective than it is, and your paid colleagues are probably completely aware of the problem. Because 10% of donors are responsible for 90% of giving (statistically), your paid colleagues do not need to do any more than the minimum required, which is to follow through with the status quo agenda. You are a risk because you have the freedom of not earning money, and you are at risk of abuse for the same reason.

Although you are a volunteer you are still served by human resources. If you go to HR and make a complaint and they do nothing in four weeks, then prepare to leave. I suspect that you are already preparing to go despite your fears. If you are a donor as well, you can make a real statement by telling your paid colleague's boss why you will no longer be making any donations. Save that for what you consider an appropriate moment.

All told you are in a better position than you think. Walking away will only mean a waste of two years' work and a burn out of what was probably a very promising beginning. I am a fundraiser who got into volunteer management because of the treatment and subsequent turnover by low-level employees and volunteers like you. I bet you could raise five times as much as your closest paid colleague. Do not feel discouraged, you are a diamond in the rough.
posted by parmanparman at 4:10 PM on October 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: parmanparman, I'm afraid it's not at a university. More like elementary education. I should have spelled that out. Thank you very much for your answer.
posted by Fairchild at 4:16 PM on October 8, 2013

Quit now. Don't wait until May (unless you have a kid at the elementary school in which case it is time to reduce your involvement and gracefully back out of leadership).

This is no good for you - and frankly, it is not good for the program. Quit, and find a place your volunteer efforts are appreciated and your input is valued.
posted by arnicae at 4:33 PM on October 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

Uh, just quit? Write a resignation letter, and mention you are happy to answer any questions they may have about why you are leaving.

If you're worried about burning bridges, don't, because there's little chance of them writing you a nice letter of reference.

One thing to consider is the personal network you have developed over the past year or so. Let people know you are leaving, that you wish to stay in touch, and that you are looking for volunteer opportunities that are "more autonomous and much less tactical."
posted by KokuRyu at 4:39 PM on October 8, 2013

More like elementary education.

Wait, is this your child's school you are volunteering at? If so, I mean, you should still quit, but come up with some convenient excuse as to why you can no longer do it and wish them the best. You don't want to burn bridges if your kiddo still has to show up there every day.
posted by Rock Steady at 5:57 PM on October 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

I work in a nonprofit and we rely heavily on volunteers. I think you should absolutely resign and tell them why professionally and politely, but explicitly. While painful for everyone (and especially you -- you sound like a truly wonderful volunteer!), your resignation and explicitly stated reasons for resigning are something that this organization obviously needs, especially the administrator who expects you to thank her for helping you help her. This sense of ingratitude and entitlement will eventually kill this organization if not remedied. It may be they realize their mistake immediately when they hear it, and make immediate amends. But probably not. Don't keep putting a bandaid on their problem for them.

You will most likely not be hurting yourself in any way by doing this, especially if done professionally. As parmanparman says, volunteers like you are desperately needed and are recognized immediately by organizations that know what they are doing.

You also do not need to worry that by doing this you are condemning a good cause or a good overall organization. You can be helping a good cause by pointing out what is desperately wrong and acting on it. As a volunteer, you may actually have more power to do this than employees do; many of them may actually feel like you do but even more stuck. You can be a leader here.

Good luck.
posted by beanie at 6:02 PM on October 8, 2013

The sooner you quit, the sooner you can put your talents to work at an organization that will appreciate and benefit from your skills. You can do more good someplace else.
posted by MexicanYenta at 6:52 PM on October 8, 2013

You aren't getting paid, you aren't getting appreciated, what's your incentive for showing up? Time is precious, and volunteering is optional by definition.
posted by oceanjesse at 8:18 PM on October 8, 2013

If this is your child's school, I see how you are stuck. Anyone I've ever known who has done PTA in a leadership role has been kind of frustrated by it.
Stop doing the stuff where they are treating you like an employee. Do the things you need to do for your position but you don't have to do extra things if they're being jerks about it. it's possible to very sweetly remind them that you're a volunteer and you're not up for x,y,z right now and can't take care of that for them. Think Southern charm, all smiley but serious.
Unfortunately, you are in a thankless and kind of crappy position and that's to some degree the nature of that position. It's up to you how terrible you let it be. I'd say keep trying new things to the extent you can, and do the best that you can with whatever the administration forces on you.
Honestly, if it were me I would sit down with the administration lady and clear the air a little. Take her for coffee and tell her you feel like this could be going better, empathize with her a little and ask what you could be doing together to make it easier and more effective for both of you. No, you definitely should not have to be the one to do any of this, but sometimes you help yourself more by taking the high road on some of this BS.
I wish I could tell you how to make changes, I don't know if that's really possible given that the staff and administration stays the same and the PTA rotates and may just not have enough energy for a coup.
Anyway, hang in there. There are kids that are benefiting because of the work that you're doing.
posted by mrs. taters at 6:44 AM on October 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

If you are president of the PTA, it's really simple. Just write a letter of resignation:

"I am sorry not to be able to complete my term, but family responsibilities require more of my time."

Then bail.

If you're not happy, then bounce. Trust me, the world will continue to turn.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 10:28 AM on October 9, 2013

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