Throughout my academic and professional career volunteerism has always been a part of who I am and what I have done. I never really gave it a second thought. Even before I was a teenager I found myself helping with food and toy drives in my local community. At first I don’t think I got much out of it, other than a feeling of community. While much of it stemmed from my faith community, looking back it may have been much deeper.
As a young professional I have found myself joining several non-profit and meetup groups to find like-minded people who were looking for opportunities to give back to their communities. Volunteerism is something that was instilled in me from a young age. Now, as an adult living in Virginia and working in Washington, DC, there isn’t much free time to play around with so you may ask, why waste it?
Let me make this abundantly clear, time spent helping other, or the community as a whole, is never wasted. Anyone who has been in the corporate world has heard the term “work-life balance”. It is my belief that volunteerism should fit into that balance as well. Some may argue that volunteering for your own self-improvement is selfish. Although, to be honest, I don’t see why that is a bad thing in most cases.
It may be a little selfish, but it really comes down to where your heart is during the process. It should be done with good intention, an open mind, and a willingness to expand the limits of what you know. You must also be prepared to relinquish false pretenses about what you do not know. Volunteering is not a chore, nor is it a one way street of you helping a person or organization. The experience of volunteering has many ways of reciprocating. It can be in the simple forms of appreciation, networking with other volunteers and staff, mentoring, and even knowledge gained on the job. Volunteering is not just about the poor and sick. It also includes underfunded public and nonprofit organizations that need help. Museums, nature preserves, libraries and many others are constantly looking for people with a broad range of skills to keep themselves afloat.
Volunteering also doesn’t stop at the boots on the ground. These organizations also need leadership. They need people with business experience: those with connections and access to donors who will drive their ideas forward at board of directors’ level. I have been blessed to work at several companies that took volunteerism very seriously. Their commitment to the people they serve and the surrounding communities is woven into every part of their business, and it shows.
In this very politically polarizing environment some may be put off by some options for volunteering. Let me assure you, there are plenty of organizations to choose from. There are faith-based organizations, environmental organization, artistic organization, children’s needs organization, special needs organization, mental health organization, shelters, and the list goes on. There are no shortage of opportunities.
You are also not limited to what you can be doing for these organizations. If you have a specialization at work, your special skill could be invaluable to them. Some of the most sought after skills these days include IT professionals, legal aid, accounting, design, HR, marketing, and fundraising planning. As a design professional I have been a member of AIGA for many years and one of the newer programs they have started is “Design for Good“. Which is a way for designers to get involved in social change through their design skills. This is also a great way to keep an unused skill you may have learned in school sharp while still being happily employed somewhere; you never know when you will need that skill again, and your employer might thank you later.
The other thing that people might worry about is time commitment. Even as someone who does not have much free time during the week and still enjoys having a social life on the weekend, many organizations are always willing to work with your schedule if they need you bad enough. Depending on the work, many also have tasks that can be done from home. Think of it as teleworking. Like I said earlier, there are so many options, finding a good fit is often just a matter of research.
During my time at The Institute of International Education, my group’s goal was to assist international students fulfill their goal of studying in the United States and assist U.S. higher education institutions find international students who were the right fit for their school. As a first generation Korean-American (of sorts) while this job wasn’t charity, it was a cause, and one that I fully supported with every bone in my body. The idea that international students study in the U.S. and return to their home countries as goodwill ambassadors is a great, feel-good story. Even when I was a contractor for NOAA, I had the privilege of working on videos pertaining to ocean health and public safety.
While working at IIE I began one of the most fulfilling partnerships of my professional career. I began volunteering for the American Red Cross. While I started as just a local disaster responder, going out to local fires to fill out paperwork for people displaced from their homes, I quickly became more involved. I also volunteered as a staff photographer, logistics driver, outreach volunteer, and shelter manager. The one aspect of this I want to point out is there was a lot of training involved. I don’t mean for this to be a detractor; I mean for it to be a benefit. I have received hours of free training regarding local, regional and national disaster assessment and management along with countless hours of specialty training including: managing a shelter, first aid, food safety, and disaster frontline supervisor/management. I would not have otherwise been exposed to these types of learning experiences and now they are skills I can not only use while volunteering for the American Red Cross, but I can also use them elsewhere.
At the beginning of last year I began working as a full-time employee for Fannie Mae, who has been one of the most gracious companies I have ever worked for when it comes to volunteerism. Not only do they allow employees to allot ten hours month to volunteering on the clock, while reading over the on-boarding paperwork I also found out they grant one week’s paid leave to respond to a national disaster (declared by the federal government, and with manager’s approval of course). After finding this out I made it a goal to take advantage of it “when we weren’t busy.” An opportunity came up towards the end of 2016 about a month after Hurricane Matthew hit the Carolinas.
I ended up deploying for two weeks to South Carolina and started in Myrtle Beach. When I first decided to go I didn’t know what to expect. From my previous experiences as a local disaster responder and working in the shelters I had a sense of what I could expect emotion wise from the people. What I couldn’t have planned for were some of the visuals.
My primary task for the Red Cross during my deployment was disaster assessment. In short, this is a pair of volunteers that walk up to a property and assess the severity of damage to a unit including the living situation. This information is used by caseworkers that follow-up by phone and depending on the severity, by FEMA. While there was a lot of wind and water damage that I am pretty accustomed to growing up on the Chesapeake Bay, there was just something about some of the areas that got me. Maybe it was entire community’s roads with downed trees piled 10 feet high on both sides awaiting cleanup crews to take them away, or perhaps it was driving through areas with house after house gutted and its waterlogged contents piled out front, but something flipped a switch in my head.
Halfway through my deployment I realized something changed the experience for me. I work for Fannie Mae, we are an integral part of the U.S. housing market. There was just something about that juxtaposition that rattled around in my brain. Here I was, outside Columbia, SC, having a moment. It was an experience that I really took to heart and hope that I can do again in the near future. I cannot think of another place of work that would have afforded me the opportunity to take advantage of that Red Cross deployment. Additionally, not only did my management give me the opportunity, it was encouraged.
It is that encouragement that lead me to this post. While Fannie Mae encourages their employees to volunteer, I encourage others to do the same. If you are an employee, I encourage you to think about volunteering. Even if it is something small, maybe take up a one time a month delivery for a local food pantry that needs donations picked up from local grocery stores and brought to their sorting facility. If you are an employer, think about ways you can encourage your employees to volunteer, see how you can even benefit by using it as team building or free training for them. Become a board member of a non-profit; you never know who you might end up working with.
Volunteerism can be many things to different people. It can be therapeutic, it can be recreational, and it can even be a challenging. In fact, there should always be a little bit of a challenge. If we want to improve ourselves we need to push ourselves, even if it is just a little. In my case I have used volunteering as a way to be more socially active and become more involved in emergency preparedness in a region that can never have enough hands ready to help. In some cases you can also make it fun! Volunteer to teach a few kids to play an instrument, ride a bike, paint, whatever makes you happy, I am sure it can make someone else happy as well.
There are simply too many volunteer sites out there to list, but a quick google search will give you more than you will need. Before wrapping up I did want to point out one service organization. Primarily because it became a part of my life at a very key time and really cemented some of the strongest friendships I have ever had. My first semester of college I joined the co-ed national service fraternity Alpha Phi Omega. They have chapters on campuses across the country and while many social fraternities do have service aspects to them, APO’s main purpose is service to the campus, community and country.
If you are still with me, thank you for hanging in there. For those who know me, I am not much of a talker, or a writer. What I am is passionate about my work and about volunteering. I hope that message came through and more people see the benefit of volunteerism in the workplace. I feel like it has made me a better person, a better co-worker and a better global citizen.
In Leadership, Friendship, and Service,