Volunteering used to be such a one-size fits all experience. You signed up with an organization, you agreed to volunteer 20 hours a month, you came the same day and time each week, you did whatever tasks that folks did not have the time or desire to do, and then you went home. And you did not really think about your volunteer experience until next time.
My first ongoing volunteer experience was at the local public library. I shelved books and helped in the repairs department. That experience helped to grow my love of books and instilled a spirit of service that was a smoldering fire inside of me – it did not necessarily ignite it, but it kept it going.
I can hear you asking yourself, Karen, what did ignite that fire? Well, for me, it was another experience – working for a political campaign. This experience was so different. I was not performing tasks that could be done by anyone, anytime. I was working on a team. And we were working together to make an impact. And we were going to shake up the system and help to change the future of our country. I worked on all kinds of tasks – ones that were easy (stickers anyone?), things I never would have thought I could do (responding to inquiries about political stances of the candidate – using a scripted response of course), and working with other team members who inspired me with their commitment to our work (and boy did I learn from those folks).
What truly engaged me, kept me coming back for more, and kept me committed to the next steps was the team. The overall outcome was not positive – our candidate lost. Big time. Nevertheless – what I learned from this experience was incredible. How a team experience can create energy, that a team shows that the sum is always greater than its parts. The importance of the leader as a facilitator that stokes the fire within the volunteers – helps them to find their own meaningful contribution to the team and see the impact that they are making in the process. And the mission – does it resonate with the team members and do they have a way to leave their thumbprint within the organization – to know they made a difference in the the team and to the mission. Some lessons last a lifetime.