Why I Work for Free – A Story of Volunteering

vol·un·teer

“freely offer to do something.”

That definition of “volunteer” is pretty straight forward. It refers to the action of offering one’s help freely, without cost, without stipulation. You choose to do something, whether it’s out of the goodness of your own heart or for a number of other reasons. Whatever those reasons are, compensation, at least in the form of money, is generally not involved. You were not required to do whatever it was but you offered yourself up anyway. Sometimes we volunteer to do the dishes after someone has made us a lovely meal, sometimes we volunteer to go first in presentations.

And sometimes we volunteer our time to organizations and events that matter to us.

While volunteering for different organizations was not foreign to me because of mandatory volunteer hours in high school, it is something that up until now I considered myself too busy to do unless I had to. I was always working or in school and while I probably could have made the time to tack on an extra hour or two every few weeks I never really felt compelled to do so. It wasn’t just the time constraint but the anxiety of putting myself in a new situation that really held me back from doing it.

But after being unemployed for six months this past year, I not only had the time but I really had the need for volunteering. Declines for job applications had come in steadily and any inquiry I was able to make came back to the same issue: others had more experience. It’s not that I didn’t have any experience at all; I’ve worked at a wide range of places from non-profits, to post-secondary, to Walt Disney World but this experience was not enough. My experience with the populations I want to work with and with social services as a whole was really limited. And so, I turned to volunteering.

While a pessimist would express concern over the fact that I was basically taking the jobs I wanted and doing them for free, I will argue that I have gained more from volunteering than it ever took from me and it’s because of that that I wanted to share my top five reasons for volunteering. I’m sure if I really thought about it I could think about five or ten more but for now these are the ones that come to mind.

Gaining experience

Number one is pretty straightforward, given the main reason I started volunteering in the first place. The hope was to fill the gaps in my practical experience that would compliment the educational background I had worked so hard to get. I needed the experience working in the social service sector rather than just reading about it and wanting to support it. Still, many volunteer positions require some experience as well, especially if you’re looking to work with vulnerable populations which is why you may sometimes have to start at a lower position and work yourself up. For me, this meant starting administratively with a women’s shelter rather than working in the shelter itself because I did not have shelter experience. It’s all about working into it.

Making connections

So much today is about who you know. Sometimes knowing someone gives you a heads up on when a job that you might want will be posted, and other times it could just be information on an event or something else that you’d be interested in. My volunteering opportunities have opened up other volunteering opportunities and they have also allowed me to meet more people in the sector that I’m interested in working in. These connections can definitely come in handy down the road, especially because I was limited to just one family member in the same field as me, and a handful who took the policing route. Becoming more connected has exposed me to more and helped me learn from others around me.

Getting your foot in the door

Many organizations like to hire new employees from their volunteer pool. You’ve already shown some time and dedication to the organization, and you likely know more about it than someone applying from outside so it really makes sense. This is how things worked out for me. One of my organizations always sends out an internal job posting before they make it external so they can try and get suitable candidates from their volunteers. It’s a great way for them to reward and recognize volunteers, and it’s a great way for volunteers to transition into a larger or different role.

Getting to be a part of something that matters to you

While it’s great that volunteering can be beneficial to helping kickstart or even enhance your career, I think it’s also something that enhances your life. You get to choose where you volunteer and therefore you get to insert yourself into a realm that is important to you. Feminism and issues of violence against women are two things I’ve always been passionate about and getting to volunteer with a women’s shelter, even just through their events committee has allowed me to be a part of issues I used to just talk about.

Making a difference

This may seem like it’s the same reason as the last one but in my head it actually tackles the other side of things. While volunteering gives the gift of being a part of something, it also allows you to put positive energy out there and make a difference to someone else. The other reasons are very you-focused but this one is about the people you’re actually interacting with and influencing by being a volunteer. This one acknowledges that volunteers are doing amazing work and that they are changing people’s lives by offering their time freely. Whether it’s helping one person by being a companion to the elderly, or a group of people by being a camp counsellor, or even the organization itself by helping with fundraising and events, you are making a difference by giving your time to the organization you choose. You can change someone’s life just by being there. Sometimes all it takes is a few hours out of your day.

I truly wish someone had pushed me to volunteer sooner. Yes, sometimes it makes my days long and my commute longer but even when I’m the most tired I have never regretted my choice to become a part of the two agencies that I’m volunteering with. I’ve met some amazing people and I’ve been given the opportunity to really make a difference. Not only that, but volunteering bridged a gap for me and I’m a few weeks away from starting a career that I thought I was years away from. It makes you wonder what if I had done this sooner, but of course I’m just glad I have done this now.

If there is somewhere in your community that inspires you with the work they do, or is just something you’ve always wanted to be a part of then consider giving some of your time. It’s often not a very big commitment, a few hours here and there every month, and I promise what you’ll get out of it will be worth so much more than the time you gave up.

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