Should I stay or should I go: volunteering edition
May 31, 2015 6:19 AM   Subscribe

I volunteer for an annual event that's close to my heart, but don't fit in with my fellow volunteers. Should I go back next year or give up this part of my life?

Once a year for four years I have volunteered for an event that involves working with young people. I'm part of a team of similarly aged volunteers who are mostly, like me, past participants in this event (they range from 19-24; I'm 24).

As part of this event we stay in a hotel for a few nights as the event runs over several days and is held at various conference centres around the country. We have 8am starts, so I try to go to bed at a reasonable time and avoid alcohol completely (I don't drink much anyway though). I feel like it's part of my job to ensure I'm in top condition to help out, particularly as this event can be quite stressful for the young people involved. I also feel like I should represent the event as best I can.

My issue is not with the event itself; it's with my fellow volunteers.

As an example, one volunteer has been late every day of the three events in which he's been involved. It's treated as a running joke, which I find frustrating. For me, lateness of this consistency indicates huge disrespect and he would not have been allowed back after the first event, though I understand that different people view lateness differently and I may be unduly harsh. Other volunteers have also arrived late, despite us all being in the same hotel attached to the conference centres.

The morning lateness is made worse for me by the fact that all of the volunteers except me go out drinking in the evenings. I understand that they want to socialise with each other as they only meet once a year, but I feel it is unprofessional and again disrespectful to get drunk at this event. Several have turned up hungover or still drunk in the morning, but the volunteer manager doesn't mind as long as it doesn't affect their work and isn't too obvious. They also get involved in making decisions about the event itself with the head of the event, who is uncompromising (and kind of rude) to everyone else, when he joins in with their drinking.

These things make me feel alienated from my fellow volunteers. I am generally a bit socially awkward and prefer one-on-one conversations to group interactions, but there isn't much opportunity for these with the people I'd like to get to know better. I'm also not a fan of being around people who are drinking heavily. I have been involved longer than any of the other volunteers and would love to continue as involvement in this event really changed my life when I was in school. I feel like I no longer fit into the equation, and it's for the same reason that I don't fit in with a lot of people my age. The fact it's connected to an event that was so important to me makes it feel worse though; I got very depressed after this year's event.

Soon the call for volunteers for 2016 will be going out and I don't know what to do. Here's what I want to know:

1) Are my complaints reasonable?
2) Are they reason enough to not get involved any more?
3) Should I talk to the volunteer manager about this?

Thanks very much; last time I asked an anonymous question you really helped me (I've been through trauma counselling and have accepted I was abused, but am no longer wasting huge amounts of headspace on those people).
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (16 answers total)
I suspect that it is hard to find volunteers for this activity and that the behavior of these other volunteers isn't having as big of an effect on the program as it seems to you, at least compared with the difficulty in finding volunteers.
Put your energy into being the best mentor/whatever that you can be and try to ignore the other volunteers' behavior.
posted by k8t at 6:26 AM on May 31, 2015

Focus on why you take part in this event. You seem to find it fulfilling so direct your attention to the cause instead of at your fellow volunteers. Fitting in with them is not why you participate, and you cannot control what they do or what attitude they take towards the event. You also cannot control how they spend their time either volunteering or in the off hours. They have as much right to choose what kind of experience they want to have as you do. Your way is not necessarily The Right Way; it's just right for you.

Don't talk to the volunteer manager about this. If you find the work meaningful and enriching, keep taking part in it. If you can't get past being annoyed at those who approach it differently, then stop. But I hope you don't quit; just turn your focus from the other volunteers to those you're helping by being a part of the event.
posted by Kangaroo at 6:32 AM on May 31, 2015 [6 favorites]

1) Are my complaints reasonable?
I wouldn't say that they're unreasonable, but your perspective is not shared by the people who are running the event. The people who are running the event care whether volunteers are getting their work done, not about what they're doing after hours or whether they're showing appropriate respect by showing up on time. It sounds like your co-volunteers are accurately reading the organizers' priorities, for what it's worth.
2) Are they reason enough to not get involved any more?
I don't know. What are you hoping to get out of participating in this event? Are these concerns preventing you from getting what you want? If you're there because you want to support an event that was meaningful to you, then I think you should probably continue, unless your annoyance at the other volunteers is going to overshadow the good feeling that comes from supporting something you believe in. If you want to meet people and network, and if you don't feel like you can do that because you don't feel connected to the other volunteers, then it might make sense to find a volunteer opportunity that's a better fit for you.
3) Should I talk to the volunteer manager about this?
I don't see anything good coming out of that.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 6:36 AM on May 31, 2015 [14 favorites]

1) Your feelings are reasonable, but what do you want your complaints to accomplish? What people do in their free time is kind of none of your business; whether other people prefer to interact as a pack rather than one-on-one might make this group a bad match for you but isn't really anything you can change. The lateness doesn't seem to be an issue for the organizers.

2) It's making you miserable - so yes I think it's reasonable to stop volunteering. Is there another way you can volunteer for the organization, in a less hotel-suite-and-boozing kind of way?

3) Building on the above point, you might want to ask the volunteer manager if there's a way to get involved that doesn't involve the boozing and the late nights. That would be a good way to both raise your concerns, but also find another way to participate. Don't go into this saying "the other volunteers are doing this wrong," try to take the perspective of "this isn't working for me, but I still want to participate - is there a way to make that happen?"

I think you have three options, basically:
1) Continue volunteering the way you are, but drop your expectations of "fitting in" with the other volunteers. There is nothing wrong with not fitting in with a group of people! If you can go, and do your work, and be fulfilled by that, great. If you do eventually find others who approach the event more like you, even better.
2) Find a new way to volunteer with the organization (or another organization to volunteer with) that is more in line with your work ethic and social style.
3) Drop the volunteering entirely. (A last resort.)
And I suppose, 4) keep doing what you're doing and silently fuming at people. (Not recommended!)
posted by mskyle at 6:48 AM on May 31, 2015 [3 favorites]

The fact it's connected to an event that was so important to me makes it feel worse though; I got very depressed after this year's event.

Volunteering doesn't just fulfill a need in your community, it's also something that should make you feel good. If you're finding that the volunteering you're doing now isn't doing that, there are a million other opportunities out there for deserving charities or nonprofits. Find something that feeds your soul as well as does good.
posted by xingcat at 7:05 AM on May 31, 2015 [5 favorites]

1) Are my complaints reasonable?

I agree with Arbitrary and Capricious - they're reasonable in the abstract. The difficulty is that they are not a fit with the culture of this organization. The other volunteers' expectations are also not unreasonable. I've been involved in event management for a long time, and have worked on events with both kinds of cultures: focused, discplined, mission-driven, and relaxed, social, casual. Both kinds can get the work done, and that's the important thing. Events tend to attract a volunteer culture that matches their management style. This one doesn't sound like a cultural match for you.

I have also worked on events/programs where there was someone like you - early-to-bed, non-drinker, older - but that person sort of was comfortable accepting their role and opting out of those after-hours events without feeling upset about it. I think that takes a very easy-going and self-aware person who can focus on the benefits to them and the cause and who does not consider the social component as important.

2) Are they reason enough to not get involved any more?

Absolutely. This sounds like a whole lot of effort, and pouring a lot of effort into something that isn't satisfying for you is a fairly toxic thing to do to yourself. It's also bad for the event as a whole, as volunteers who are resentful of the way things are run, or who aren't getting along with others, or who have a constant issue with the management, eventually detract from the efficacy of the entire team. Also, you've said a lot about what's wrong with this event, but you haven't balanced it out with what's on the other side of the equation for you. Do you get enough out of this that, if it never changed, you'd be able to continue contributing happily? It could be just that you focused elsewhere in your question, but what about this event, if anything, still lights you on fire? And, at some point, it sounds like you're going to age out of it. That's natural. Is this just maybe that point for you? Most people do move on from youth causes once they are a bit older than the typical mentoring group.

3) Should I talk to the volunteer manager about this?

AS a professional in a field involving volunteers, I'd say yes. It doesn't have to be a big deal - you could just wait until they issue the call for volunteers and then write a thoughtful email saying "Thanks for inviting me again. I've given it a lot of thought, and I think I will not be returning next year. I wanted to let you know my reasons in case they are helpful in planning for your future volunteer roles." The main issue to focus on sharing with him is a managerial one - that the head of the event makes decisions outside of the formal event planning structure and that makes volunteers potentially feel alienated. That is a fairly serious issue in organizations, and it's bad hygeine for an event manager to make decisions with a subset of people late at night at a bar. That's the biggest one to raise. The other stuff is mostly cultural and you could say a bit about how the culture of the event looks to you and how it doesn't match your personal interests, but the most important piece is that they hear (a) the head is "rude" to other volunteers who aren't in the in-group and (b) is making event decisions after hours without formal procedure.

It sounds to me like it's just time. If you come home feeling depressed rather than uplifted, that is a perfect description of a volunteer gig that's become soul-sucking. There are so many other things you could do with your generosity and your time that would make you happier, not sadder. Look into doing them!
posted by Miko at 7:12 AM on May 31, 2015 [12 favorites]

The fact it's connected to an event that was so important to me makes it feel worse though

When I burn out of volunteering my time for an event that I otherwise enjoy, I pull back from volunteering and instead just attend the event and volunteer with the fewest obligations possible without being tied down to the various commitments.
posted by deanc at 7:32 AM on May 31, 2015

Like Miko, I manage volunteers in my job. Please speak to the person in charge of the volunteers, whether you decide to stay or not, for all the reasons she has listed. Please be kind and nonjudgmental when you do so, but be factual and focus on why the experience has made you increasingly disinterested in participating. Again, Miko's suggestion that you say the culture of the event does not match your interests or intent in volunteering. Definitely mention that the late night drinking sessions which yield strategic decisions feels alienating. Do praise the event and its meaning to you--that's honest and your motivation for volunteering for as long as you have, This is all really critical feedback that NPO volunteer managers often need and rarely get.

FWIW even when I was 22 and volunteering at events with free booze, volunteers (and staff as well) always knew that they were not to have more than a single drink until the event was over and that being late was unacceptable. I've never volunteered at an event where "professional" was not the first requirement for volunteer behavior. But as you've said, this is apparently not part of this organization's rules or culture; still it would be a deal-breaker for me, too.
posted by crush-onastick at 8:02 AM on May 31, 2015 [2 favorites]

I really sympathize. It sounds like you've really treasured your involvement with this org and it's unfair that you're feeling pushed out of it by folks who are treating it as a party zone. Just wanted to say that.
posted by fingersandtoes at 8:39 AM on May 31, 2015

Do the behaviors of the other volunteers really impact your ability to do your job as much as you say, or are you allowing resentment to unnecessarily interfere with what you need to do? You're taking their behavior very personally, like somehow it's a reflection of you even though it isn't. Ultimately you have no idea really what's going on for each of these people at this event. Have you considered that for some of these volunteers this event is extremely emotional and they are trying to cope the best way that they can so that they can perform their duties? Maybe the person who comes late has an illness that hits them right in the morning and they have to come late because they'd be sick at work otherwise. Basically I think you can continue to volunteer here if you extend the same empathy you provide to the kids to your coworkers, too.
posted by Hermione Granger at 9:19 AM on May 31, 2015 [1 favorite]

Your concerns are perfectly reasonable and valid - to you. It's totally ok for you to not want to do it any more because of the cultural environment of the event; you're not the crazy one.

But they're not either, you have to remember that. They're also in it for the networking, the team-building, the blow off steam aspect, the reward for all that hard work, etc. (I imagine. I've been to events like this and sometimes it's more about the staff than the public.)

Miko has excellent advice about giving your feedback to the organizers. But also, I've found that the best way to combat a culture I don't like is to "be the change I want to see" - and recruit help. Can you encourage more people like you to be there? At least then you'd have some like-thinking people to associate with and have more fun yourself.
posted by ctmf at 9:43 AM on May 31, 2015

1) Are my complaints reasonable?

Not really, no. The ability to do the kind of socialising you're talking about is one of the upsides for unpaid volunteers at many types of events. They are not there in a professional capacity; they are there in a voluntary capacity.

2) Are they reason enough to not get involved any more?

Not really no. You need to adjust your mindset and find a different way to relate to what the event can offer you. Me, I like hotels so I cherish the opportunity to order room service, take long hot showers and baths, and tuck in early in clean sheets for a nice long read. I literally could not care less what other people are doing.

However, if part of the reason you do this event is to connect with others, then make your own plans. have dinner with other adults or go to the movies or... whatever.

3) Should I talk to the volunteer manager about this?

Not really, no?
posted by DarlingBri at 9:43 AM on May 31, 2015 [2 favorites]

If you're not getting out of volunteering what you want to get out of it, then stop. If it's not rewarding for you, it's not worth it. The event will continue without your volunteer effort—maybe it will be a little more chaotic, maybe that will be a signal that the organizers need to tighten up their volunteer structure.

Go and be part of the problem for a year, see if you like that better.
posted by adamrice at 11:59 AM on May 31, 2015

I think you may be overestimating the importance of these volunteers to the overall event. I mean, back when you were IN the program, I bet you the volunteer youths were still drinking and ducking around, and you still loved it, right? I think you have them in the mental space of 'employees' when it's not actually MEANT to be taken so seriously.

Maybe see if there is some other capacity in which you can work with this org - maybe even as a paid job!
posted by showbiz_liz at 12:20 PM on May 31, 2015 [2 favorites]

Mod note: From the OP:
Thank you for all your replies. There is a lot of good advice here and it's helpful to hear from people who have different perspectives. I can see now that this is just the way some volunteering opportunities are organised and that it's time for me to either move on or stop caring so much about the social side of things. I think the problem is that all the other volunteers are very pally and become more so after their drinking sessions, meaning I'm just sort of on my own. I'm also the only one of them who sees anything wrong with the event director getting drunk with them and making big decisions. This should be the sort of event where I fit in, but it's a repeat of just about every other social situation instead.

The volunteer manager is very approachable and knows the type of person I am – she was my chaperone when I was a participant in the international version of this event – so I may ask her advice without pointing the finger, making sure to run any emails past a few level-headed friends first. This event used to be the highlight of my year so I don't want to give it up without exploring every angle.

Thanks again, it's been really helpful! Now, some specific additions:

buoys in the hood and ctmf: recruiting friends is a great idea, though most of my friends are either abroad or older than me and involved in different things. I'll see if I can find anyone who's free though. Weirdly recruitment isn't a problem for this – more people than are needed sign up for this particular role and some end up getting placed in other roles completely separate from this one, plus people come back year on year (like me!).

Hermione Granger: we have to meet with the volunteer manager throughout the day to "check in" and get further instructions. This guy is always late for those meetings as well, which I should have made clear. I actually do have an illness that tends to kick in in the mornings myself and to me it's my responsibility, having signed up for this opportunity, to make sure I'm able to fulfil my duties, hence the going to bed at a reasonable time and not drinking. I understand people can be in denial or trying to deal with their emotions in other ways though.

showbiz_liz: there actually weren't any volunteers like this involved the year I took part – I was one of the first to do it, along with another girl who is no longer involved (there were only the two of us). I think I would have felt a bit put out if there had been volunteers who were getting drunk and turning up hungover, but I was kind of a weirdo even then!

stoneweaver: I am actually looking for jobs in the area related to this event at the moment! Perhaps one issue is that all the other volunteers are going into [x] field that this competition relates to rather than [x] communication like me, so it's not so much part of their professional trajectory, more something they do for fun. In fact, that makes a ton of sense... (though even when I was intending to go into [x] I treated volunteering for this event like a proper job. I see now that's just the way I do things though, not necessarily *the right way*.)
posted by taz (staff) at 11:55 PM on May 31, 2015

This reminds me of when my sister volunteered at an event after graduating college that my siblings and I participated in as high school students. Suddenly after seeing this from "the other side", a lot of what we experienced when we were teens was seen in a different light. Like the other volunteers were not necessarily deep-thinking intellectual people who "had it all figured out" (like it seemed when we were teens) but rather just "normal" everyday people, and my sister couldn't relate, and ended up a bit disappointed. An intense connection we thought we developed with our peers turned out to be more about the situation than the people.

You couldn't duplicate the experience several years later as a volunteer, in part because the group of people you were dealing with is different, and in part because the experience of being a volunteer is inherently different than being a participant (eg, I am sure when you participated as a student, there were no late night drinking sessions for you to be alienated from).

You also might want to think about why you seem to feel more comfortable in structured, regimented environments and feel alienated when people have the leeway and freedom to do what they want. When you were a student participant in this event, you and your fellow participants were not allowed to stay up late drinking and be late to events, and it was a great experience for you. Now that you and your fellow volunteers have freedom to make a lot of their own decisions without too much consequence, you suddenly feel alienated and unhappy. Think about why that is.
posted by bright colored sock puppet at 6:35 AM on June 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

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