Ever feel guilty about relating your volunteer activities?
October 8, 2005 10:53 PM   Subscribe

Do you ever feel guilty about telling others of your volunteer work?

I probably volunteer because it feels like I'm helping others, I feel good about myself, I enjoy new experiences and meeting new people (those I'm helping and those I'm volunteering with).

I consider it a very personal and private activity. If I were ever to tell somebody, oh I can't go with you because I'm volunteering at such and such tonight, afterwards I'd feel a bit ashamed. I feel as if I cheapen the volunteer experience - I'm (at least in part) volunteering so I can look good to other people. It might seem a bit illogical, that perhaps talking of volunteering would raise awareness and encourage others to volunteer as well, but I feel as if I'm bragging - cheapening the volunteer experience. It is kind of like I hide my volunteer activities so that I can be sure I'm doing it for the proper reasons.

Does anyone else experience this? Am I being completely irrational?

A slight aside (ignore this if I'm breaking etiquette - if i could eloquently combine it into one giant massive volunteer question I would have)

First, I don't consider an activity you solely perform to put on your resume a volunteer activity.

Second, Do you consider it actually volunteering if there are tons of volunteers just lined up behind you eager to take your spot if you had never even shown? I don't - am I reverse discriminating against popular volunteer activities? If I take their 'volunteer' spot they'll spend that time volunteering elsewhere? OR if I take their volunteer spot they won't be interested in volunteering elsewhere and I should be volunteering at the non-popular ones so that there'll be 2 instead of 1 volunteers.
posted by curbstop to Human Relations (21 answers total)
I don't do it to pad my resume, but it is satisfying work. Yet, I still find myself being a bit too proud of doing it, then feeling guilty about it later.

Don't know if you're religious, but it's like that Bible passage that instructs a person to pray in private and not make a big show about it for the neighbors so they think more highly of you..... We should volunteer simply because we can, and there is work to be done. That's where it ends. Unfortunately our human nature doesn't let it end there, does it?
posted by Doohickie at 11:12 PM on October 8, 2005

Is this all you have to worry about?
posted by 517 at 11:43 PM on October 8, 2005

Is this all you have to worry about?
posted by 517 at 11:43 PM PST on October 8

Gee 517, I think you win the prize for least helpful askme response in history.

Anyway, to answer curbstop's question, I, too feel guilty when I find myself taking too much pride in my volunteer activities. From what I gather from others, this is farily common among people who engage in volunteer work for reasons other than self-aggrandizement.
posted by dersins at 11:53 PM on October 8, 2005

I don't feel guilty talking about it. When it comes up in conversation, it's usually in the form of good/interesting experiences I've had, people I've met through volunteering, things I've learned, etc. I don't really see how it might come across as bragging.

Occasionally, people who come to know that I volunteer are interested and want to know more and/or have some knowledge or connections or resources that can benefit the place where I volunteer. I'll admit that doesn't happen too much, probably because I'm not very good at networking with others, but it does happen.

I happen to feel the way you do when it comes to purely financial donations - but that's a different topic.
posted by PY at 12:06 AM on October 9, 2005

Relax -- don't worry about it -- do your work, reference it only if you have to, and be very matter-of-fact about it, unless you want to invite someone else to participate.
posted by davidmsc at 12:13 AM on October 9, 2005

Your questions in the last paragraph are really interesting ones. A skilled volunteer coordinator could probably make good use of people even when there is an abundance of volunteers, maybe by increasing the number and/or scope of projects where they can be used.

Places that just don't get many volunteers by the very nature of the location or work needed may offer a volunteer more choices, responsibilities, and opportunities. On the other hand, some places that lack for volunteers do so because they don't have a good system in place for recruiting, training and using them.
posted by PY at 12:34 AM on October 9, 2005

I don't do any volunteering at the moment, but when I used to I made a point of talking about it exactly the same way I would anything else. I felt like if I contrived to keep it quiet I would actually be making a big deal out of it, if only in my own head. And I really wanted to avoid being more-humble-than-thou.

This means that if I have something interesting to say that is connected to volunteer work I won't feel any different than if I was discussing a movie I saw at the weekend or something I did on vacation. Some people would find it more natural to take the "mention only when you have to" approach that davidmsc suggests and I think that's fine as well - you know what your motivations are.
posted by teleskiving at 2:45 AM on October 9, 2005

If someone asks you about it, or if it's appropriate to bring it up, just go ahead and say so. If someone hears about it, they're more aware and more likely to go ahead and volunteer as well.

Don't flash around your volunteer work to impress anybody, but don't hide it either. When it comes up, it comes up.

As for popularity, it's still volunteering even if it's a popular cause. If you're interested in volunteering for the sake of doing good, it's probably better to find a smaller, but still active group. A little bit of research and asking questions will tell you a lot about who uses volunteers, who needs volunteers, and where your time and skills would be best spent.

You sound like you really enjoy volunteer work. It's simply a part of you, nothing to be hidden or overblown. If nothing else, your friends and acquaintances deserve the chance to hear about volunteer opportunities they may not have thought of.
posted by Saydur at 4:37 AM on October 9, 2005

It has been written about before:

"1 Take heed that you do not do your charitable deeds before men, to be seen by them. Otherwise you have no reward from your Father in heaven. 2 Therefore, when you do a charitable deed, do not sound a trumpet before you as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory from men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. 3 But when you do a charitable deed, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 that your charitable deed may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will Himself reward you openly.
Matthew 6:1-4
posted by caddis at 6:42 AM on October 9, 2005

am I reverse discriminating against popular volunteer activities?

No, you are not reverse discriminating. You are discriminating against popular volunteer activities, which means that you are drawing a distinction between the popular and unpopular ones and favouring the less popular. Is that wrong? I don't think so. You can choose your volunteer activities however you like.
posted by duck at 8:15 AM on October 9, 2005

I donate blood regularly (86 times so far). Only about five percent of those Americans who could give blood actually do. I try to encourage friends and co-workers to join me, but whenever I mention my giving blood, all I get are excuses and grimaces.
posted by Carol Anne at 9:07 AM on October 9, 2005

Seconding others--be matter-of-fact about it, mention when appropriate, keep your yap shut otherwise.

I feel as if I cheapen the volunteer experience - I'm (at least in part) volunteering so I can look good to other people.

"Looking good to other people" likely is part of your motivation, though a small part; all of us have complicated, contradictory, even hypocritical motives for doing pretty much anything. Which does not devalue your efforts, or cancel out the more generous motivations -- but that tiny grain of truth may be what prompts your concern in the first place.

As a general rule of thumb: if you really were a smug do-gooder-than-thou (and we've all encountered them), you'd probably never question your motivation in the first place.
posted by vetiver at 9:15 AM on October 9, 2005

I haven't volunteered in a while, but one time when I did I casually mentioned it and I got this response like "How the hell do you have time for volunteering? I don't have any spare time after working my REAL JOB!" or something like that. Bear in mind, I was about 15 years old and the person I was talking to was 17 or 18.
posted by dagnyscott at 12:22 PM on October 9, 2005

Yeah, I used to feel the same way. Occasionally I still do, especially since I have a friend that I spend a lot of time with who has a habit of exclaiming, "oh my god, you are SUCH A GOOD PERSON!!" when I do something as heroic as clearing a table of trash that isn't mine. You'd think that it would be good for my ego, but it pretty much just makes me really uncomfortable.

Anyway, I got over it once I had been volunteering for a while. After a point, it becomes less "volunteering" as a concept and more just that thing you do. On the other hand, now that I think about it, I almost always avoid saying the word "volunteering" and say something like, "I'm going to the clinic," or "I'm going to the shelter." Maybe there is some residual weirdness. At any rate, responses that you get generally will range from people not caring at all to thinking, "huh, I should volunteer."

On the second question, I don't think it matters whether the activity that you do is popular or not. You really can't be responsible for the volunteer interests of other people. The problem for most organizations that use volunteers is not that they can't get volunteers in the first place -- that's actually easier than you would think. The major problem is getting people to show up when they are supposed to and to get people to keep volunteering in the same positions long-term. Therefore, the best volunteer activities are the ones that you can do for a long time, reliably, without burning out. Of course, if you have a specialized skill, I would encourage you to do something that utilizes that if you can. Otherwise, do what you like and can commit to.

Don't take this the wrong way, because I'm sure that you're fabulous, but I think you're overthinking this to the point of navel-gazing. You're doing good by volunteering (well, unless you're volunteering for, like, the new Hitler-youth or something); it doesn't have to be the greatest and most optimal good ever for it to be worthwhile.
posted by LittleMissCranky at 1:39 PM on October 9, 2005

I don't see anything wrong in mentioning volunteering, nor any need to feel guilty about mentioning it if you enjoy what you do as a volunteer. Obviously you enjoy your volunteer work and take some pride in it, so why should you feel bad for sharing that with others? I'm not saying you are required to do so, but I don't think it cheapens anything.

I guess in my own experience, it's about framing. Most volunteering I've done is helping out at schools or working at a coffeeshop that only employed volunteers. If I couldn't do something because of it, I would say that I'm tutoring or working at the coffeeshop that day. You don't need to expressly say that you're not getting paid for whatever you're doing - the other person might figure that out on their own, or they might ask...but volunteering is part of your life. Honestly, it seems odd (to me) to keep it "secret" when it might come up in these situations, but that's your own choice.
posted by jetskiaccidents at 1:44 PM on October 9, 2005

I see nothing wrong with it. Don't feel guilty, volunteering is something to be proud of.

Bragging about volunteering isn't great form, but not because it's about volunteering, just because no one likes a braggart.

But it doesn't sound like you're bragging. Mentioning your volunteer work is nothing to be ashamed of.

I can't help you "be sure you're doing it for the right reasons" but in my view, it doesn't really matter why you're doing it. Bottom line is, you're helping people. It's something to feel good about.
posted by Count Ziggurat at 2:50 PM on October 9, 2005

Maybe some of the guilt associated with the revelation of your evening plans, "volunteering at such-and-such," comes from the very use of the word volunteer. Describing your plans this way seems to emphasize your role and the fact that it's unpaid and voluntary, all of which happen to be the same aspects that make you "look good." It makes it less about the specific project that does good and more about generously working for free.

I imagine it could feel different to you if instead you said, "Oh, I can't go out that night because I have plans to help this guy with this food-distribution project he does on Fridays." Then, if your audience is interested, they might ask how you got involved and you can say that you're a volunteer. Or, they might ask who gets the food, who provides it, and end up getting interested themselves.
posted by xo at 3:14 PM on October 9, 2005

I experience something with my job. (It's not volunteer position but I volunteered there before being hired and it is a place where someone would volunteer.) I often feel some guilt when, as mentioned above, someone says, "You're such a good person," and "You must be really patient," and such. I feel a bit of guilt (or something comparably introspective) about wondering if I can really live up to such unsolicited praise and also a tinge of discomfort about receiving praise. I rarely tell anyone what I work at and when it comes up I often downplay it and often I quickly steer the conversation in another direction. (Maybe you feel the same way, but when I talk to someone about work, it's a measure of how comfortable I feel with them.) I think the responses from others make it (talking about volunteering) seem like bragging rather than your act of talking about it.

>I consider it a very personal and private activity.
There is something about comparing your inside to everyone else's outside - that you can see their outside and your inside but not their inside. I think the guilt comes from this and that (to add to oscar wilde) all criticism (and perhaps, too, responses) is autobiography - that the people you talk to might be talkign to themselves as much as to you. I'll second citing the praying in the closet versus praying in public.
posted by philfromhavelock at 3:31 PM on October 9, 2005

Just don't use the word "volunteering", it'll sound much less braggy.
posted by trevyn at 5:08 PM on October 9, 2005

I have an odd in-between situation where I work as an AmeriCorps volunteer. So, I have a regular job, it just pays lousy enough that they look at the work as "volunteer" work [and so that for the sake of minimum wage laws, for example, I am in the clear making $500/mo for half time work]. So I tell people "I'm an AmeriCorps volunteer" and the first thing they say is "But you get paid, right...?" which is true, sort of so it becomes odd explaining. I mostly don't talk about its volunteer nature because to me it's like bragging about having enough money to be able to afford to volunteer which I am a bit shy about. I do other work for no pay at all which seems to me to be more accurately "volunteer work".

That said, I just call my volunteer obligations "work" no matter what they are, if they have the same importance to me as work, or if I have the same commitment to them as work. The getting paid vs not getting paid aspect of it doesn't really matter to me too much. So, in your situation I'd say '"I can't go to that thing with you because I have to work" and, realistically, if I *really* wanted to go, I would go, whether or not I had a job responsibility or a volunteer responsibility. I don't keep it a secret, but I don't talk much about it either. I don't see volunteering as inherently any more or less noble than a job, you have to be doing both of them for the right reasons, in my world.

As to your questions

I don't consider an activity you solely perform to put on your resume a volunteer activity.

That may be true for how you view the world of volunteering, and why it's important to you, but many people don't share that belief. Volunteering as a broad definition is just about doing work for free, sometimes for a noble cause, sometimes not.

Do you consider it actually volunteering if there are tons of volunteers just lined up behind you eager to take your spot

Again, this may be a cultural difference between your world and mine, but here again it's a volunteer job if you do it for free [popular or not] and it's not if you get paid for it. At the Dmeocratic National Convention I had friends who were volunteering for Rock The Vote and got to shuttle around quasi-superstars for part of the event. Even though they were in an eviable position, it's still stright up volunteer work. At some level pointing out that cool jobs as well as scut work can be volunteer responsibilities is a good way to get more people interested in the idea in the first place.
posted by jessamyn at 5:18 PM on October 9, 2005

I tell people when it's relevent to the conversation, or when it's practically relevent for scheduling etc., which is how you discuss most topics anyway. If you don't say it just to declare it there's nothing to worry about. It's certainly no worse than cancelling lunch because you have a dentist's appointment.

You shouldn't be worried about your motives too much anyway, the work is just as good even if you are doing it for your own self-worth (which it sounds like you aren't). For instance, I'm transcribing Rolodexes into Outlook for a legal defense service for the poor. That puts me too far away from my benefactors to feel a sense of empathy or anything else, so whatever positive feelings I get from it have to be just the self-satisfaction of doing something ethically good. As an example, to pick something that feels more selfless but is less important work than some other position would be more selfish in practice, not that that's bad (improving yourself is essentially an act of charity as well).

It's partly the classic question of whether doing something that makes you feel good is still a selfless act. Even parenting and other morally excellent activities almost always make us feel better than if we didn't do them; IMO it's the act that counts. There's certainly nothing wrong with personal improvement, though.


"Do you consider it actually volunteering if there are tons of volunteers..."

It's like adopting the cutest puppy from the shelter, which is generally considered to be fine. While someone else would surely do it, at least one of the other people in line will do something else instead, as you said. I'd say it's less excellent than doing something where there's a shortage, but still plenty good.
posted by abcde at 8:35 PM on October 9, 2005

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