questions about volunteering as a ZMP worker
June 26, 2014 7:47 PM   Subscribe

Looking for practical tips on how and where to volunteer as a ZMP, unskilled worker with horrific social skills/personality.

Three generic pieces of advice for people rebuilding their lives are to A) get therapy, B) to exercise, and C) to volunteer. Several years of counseling, therapy, meds, and following a regular exercise regimen have been helpful in crawling out from rock-bottom. Recently I started thinking about volunteering.

What are some practical tips for volunteering as a zero-marginal-product (ZMP) worker – volunteering basically as unskilled labor? Are there in fact volunteer opportunities for unskilled, pain-in-the-ass workers like myself? Does anyone have any tips on how this works? Real-world examples of how it has or hasn’t worked would be helpful too.

Confounding factors:
• severe social anxiety; extreme awkwardness
• sullen, unpleasant personality

Realistically, are people like me cut out for volunteering?
What would be a good fit?
Wouldn’t it just go over like a lead balloon, sucking the life out of whichever non-profit I “volunteered” at like a human black hole of negativity, thereby further humiliating me in the process?

Looking for practical tips on how and where to volunteer as a ZMP, unskilled worker with horrific social skills/personality.
posted by beigeness to Health & Fitness (10 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
what do you, personally, want to get out of volunteering?
posted by sweetkid at 8:08 PM on June 26, 2014

Best answer: Realistically, are people like me cut out for volunteering?

Yes! I think you want to hear no, but the answer is honestly yes. When you're volunteering, the only reason that the work you're doing is getting done at all is because you're doing it. The organization you're helping will be thankful for you doing work that otherwise couldn't be done, and whoever that organization is helping will probably be thankful, too.

You don't have to be amazing to be worthwhile volunteer, you just have to be better than literally nothing. And you ARE better than nothing.

What would be a good fit?

Pet shelter or animal rescue. For context: I've volunteered for the SPCA in Baltimore and a public pound in LA, so my info is coming from those experiences.

You don't have to interact with people much (sometimes more, sometimes less depending on the job -- but if you want basically zero interaction, there are still jobs for you to do). The most interaction would be if you are supervising in an interaction room, where people visit with the animals they're thinking of adopting, or if you're helping with an adoption drive. If you want to keep your interaction with people to a minimum, you can walk and exercise dogs, do cat socialization, clean kennels, do laundry, etc etc etc. The stuff that needs doing is pretty much endless, and you're by and large with the animals, not human beings. The application and orientation process for shelters and rescues can be long, because they have to be sure that people will handle the animals in a safe way, and there are usually a lot of training classes that you have to take as you get more and more responsibility -- but the process isn't really arduous or anything, it just takes a while.

The animals are obviously and genuinely happy to get the interaction (it actually surprised me at first how much it clearly *mattered* to them when I socialized with them. It really, really does, and you'll see it very clearly). By interacting with them and giving them stimulation and company you're helping keep them from losing their minds (literally) in confinement. Dogs are more prone to that than cats, but all animals have a breaking point, and life in a shelter is very tough. When you interact with them, you're offering them some relief from that. You're really doing a service and keeping more animals alive and sane when you interact with them and show them care while they're in that situation. It's very fulfilling work.

Wouldn’t it just go over like a lead balloon, sucking the life out of whichever non-profit I “volunteered” at like a human black hole of negativity, thereby further humiliating me in the process?

No, I actually think it would give you confidence. When you volunteer, you're helping the organization and its beneficiaries out of the goodness of your heart, and *they realize that.* Volunteering isn't high stakes and you don't have to "prove" yourself. If you can't handle a duty or even just if it doesn't sound appealing, then don't volunteer for it or say you can't do it after all -- that's OK, too. It's not like a job. If you can't or won't do something, they'll understand. Just be communicative.

From my own experience volunteering, I would say that the thing most valued in a volunteer (and maybe hardest to get in a volunteer, I don't know) is reliability. If you're worried about not being good enough somehow or screwing up or everyone hating you or whatever -- just sign up for a weekly shift (or schedule yourself in as a regular volunteer in whatever way makes sense for your life) and then show up and keep showing up. That's honestly all you have to do to be a valuable and special volunteer -- you just have to keep volunteering over and over. Also, you're not any "worse" than anyone else volunteering wherever you end up helping out -- who do you think the other volunteers are? They're people just like you, and probably have a lot of overlapping values with you, too, if they chose the same organization and beneficiaries to concentrate their efforts on.

People *want* you to come volunteer with them. You're giving them what they *want* by showing up. You're not pushing yourself on them or anything. And in general, it's not a personality contest at all, not even in the way that jobs can be. Just show up and keep calm and you'll be a good volunteer, nobody will want you to stop volunteering, and it won't be humiliating, it'll be fulfilling.
posted by rue72 at 8:48 PM on June 26, 2014 [14 favorites]

I was going to suggest Habitat for Humanity, but I don't know how social that is.

And Rue72's description makes the interactions I've had with ASPCA workers so much more understandable. Thanks for that.
posted by Meep! Eek! at 10:06 PM on June 26, 2014

Address and stamp envelopes
Pick up roadside trash
Package meals for Feed my starving children
File papers
Unload food trucks at food bank
Pull weeds at local garden
Shovel horse manure at therapeutic riding stable
Set up chairs at charity event
I found that starting with one time volunteer events helped ease me into regular volunteering.
posted by SyraCarol at 5:01 AM on June 27, 2014

There are many different volunteering opportunities, and one time volunteer events are a great place to start. A friend is going through this process (he's still working on getting to the exercise part), and a few of the most enjoyed volunteering opportunities thus far include gardening, caring for animals, and helping fulfill requests from prisoners for books at a bookstore. None of these required much social interaction or prior skill, although his love of books may've helped make the last one fun. If there's something like books that you Do like, see if you can find a volunteer gig that includes it.

If you can find a volunteering organization (like the United Way) that offers many different kinds of opportunities in different locations with different groups, that may help you find something that's doable for you.

Lastly, know that it's likely you will dread going, at least at first, and will want to bail Big Time. Go anyway and try at least a few different things. Go you for working yourself up to this point in your progress.
posted by ldthomps at 8:32 AM on June 27, 2014

Animal shelters need dog walkers.
posted by hworth at 9:38 AM on June 27, 2014

Response by poster: Thanks guys! Rue that was really great. Sensible advice. You're very kind.

| what do you, personally, want to get out of volunteering?

Lately I have been having a really bad case of the feels. Extreme loneliness, a big ball of angst, as shame gradually recedes. Volunteering would get me out of my own head, right? Or so it is often suggested.
posted by beigeness at 10:38 AM on June 27, 2014

I will second everything rue72 said. In my case, I used to volunteer at the public library when I was a young teenager, and at the time I was very shy and awkward. I would essentially talk to the volunteer manager once at the beginning of my shift and once at the end, and that was the full extent of the social interaction that was involved. My responsibilities involved doing things like pulling books from the shelf for transfer to another branch, preparing materials for events at a computer, and scanning books for hold.

I found this kind of work very therapeutic and calming. It gave me a sense of responsibility without the fear of being fired or having my hours reduced, and it was a great way to get introduced to being in a work environment. U.S. public libraries are also having to lose staff due to budget cuts, so volunteer help is always appreciated.
posted by capricorn at 12:44 PM on June 27, 2014

Just wanted to add to all of this great advice that thinking of yourself as a zero-marginal product worker is not really appropriate framing for volunteering. They aren't paying you, so the entire "transaction" occurs outside of considerations of marginal product - since the volunteering framework is part of their setup already, everything you contribute has marginal utility, if you want to continue to think of everything in microecon terms. However, I 100% guarantee that the volunteer coordinators and people organizing these projects would never in a million years think of or describe any of their volunteers that way.

Further, that framing isn't necessarily a great thing for your own self-conception, either. A company may define you that way with respect to their bottom line, but you're a human being and your work absolutely does have value, whether it's "educated" or "skilled" work or not. Marginal product isn't just about what you bring to the table, it's about weighing that against costs. Just keep in mind that what you contribute does have value, even if to some random company the costs of hiring outweigh that value. ZMP doesn't mean you don't have anything of value to contribute!

If you like being outside, I'd recommend volunteering at a community garden or farm, or trail building, or some sort of activity where your labor will have self-evident value and give you a tangible sense of accomplishment, like "I planted that row of potatoes!" or "I cleared that section or trail!". It's a great feeling and will help you pull yourself out of the (ultimately destructive and self-defeating) mindset that your work only has value if some employer deems it so.
posted by dialetheia at 1:44 PM on June 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

For a lonely shelter animal, your "case of the feels" means you'll understand their position, and perhaps be more closely attuned to their needs.

English language tutoring requires more interaction, but as a "conversation partner" I sat around and listened as they talked, gently prodding them with questions. EZ peasey.

Many areas have a First Call for Help system answered at 211. Those folks will have info on tons of volunteer positions.

Just like a $$ paying job, there will be good days and bad.
posted by Jesse the K at 7:14 PM on June 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

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