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Exploring the Art of Volunteerism: Finding Your Perfect Fit

I recently won the Lethbridge Chamber of Commerce Outstanding Volunteer of the Year award, and it got me to thinking about volunteerism in general and how much it fills my cup. Volunteerism looks different for each person. Sometimes when asked about what’s next for me, I’ll talk about various organizations that I’ve thought about volunteering with and the type of opportunity that I’m looking for. When doing that I realized that I often describe two different categories of volunteer opportunities: those opportunities that require my mind and those opportunities which require my hands.

Volunteering Your Hands vs. Volunteering Your Mind

An organization that requires my mind is an organization that I might serve on the Board of Directors or committees for, or otherwise volunteer my time in a similar way to how I would do paid legal work. It may require drafting, strategic planning, or otherwise steering an organization toward its goals. These organizations often require prep time plus the actual commitment I’ve volunteered for (such as a board or committee meeting), but I find them easy to fit into my schedule and I find the kind of work that I may be called on to do easy to predict. While the content changes, the general type of work is the same across commitments.

An organization that requires my hands is an organization that involves “hands-on” volunteering, such as a service club. These organizations may or may not require the kind of skills that I have to offer from an intellectual perspective such as legal knowledge, governance, reading and writing skills; but more likely require people to show-up and perform a job for them. It could be collecting donations for a cause; volunteering at or organizing an event; or other types of volunteering that fall into a more traditional view of what volunteering looks like.

Both types of volunteering are valuable ways to give your time and expertise. For me what it boils down to is what type of volunteering fills my cup. I volunteer because I enjoy it and I take on opportunities that are only going to fill my cup, instead of take away from it. When you do volunteering that continually takes away from your cup or it’s volunteering that you do out of obligation, this will lead to burnout and resentment of the opportunity or organization that you’re giving your time to.

Not Everyone is Cut Out to Be A Volunteer

This leads me to my next point: not everyone is cut out to be a volunteer…and that’s okay! For some people, they are just simply not interested in volunteering their time or would rather use that spare time for other things. Don’t get me wrong, I would love it if everyone that I met shared the same passion for volunteering as I did, but at the end of the day it’s important to know yourself and how best you want to contribute to your community. For some, it’s not for lack of wanting, it could be due to lack of capacity at a particular time in their life. You may have capacity for a limited period of time and then lose that capacity due to changes in your life circumstances, and that’s also okay! Giving when you can and in the capacity you can is more important than trying to get the formula just right.

For other people, instead of volunteering their time, mind, or hands, they have the ability to contribute through monetary means either through donating directly to a cause, buying tickets to an event (which also supports the cause or organization), or through sponsorship. These are also essential components to ensuring that an organization has the operating funds to continue doing the great work they’re doing. You could have all the volunteers in the world to do the work, but if you can’t fund the work that needs to be done that creates a big problem.

Volunteer Curious? Here’s How to Start

If you’re volunteer curious and wanting to get your feet wet, one great way to do that is to figure out which of the two ways that I’ve outlined above that you like to volunteer – and if you don’t know that yet, pick one and give it a go. To volunteer your mind, you do not have to be a lawyer or have expertise in board governance – I certainly didn’t when I started – as these are things that can be learned and picked up with experience. One of the ways that I learned these skills when I first started was to take a course through DirectHER which is a non-profit based out of Edmonton that offers courses for women who want to join their first Board. They are funded on a donation basis and are intended to be accessible to all women.

The next step is to figure out what organizations interest you. There are many, many, many organizations in our community that need volunteers for a variety of reasons. Picking one can be tough but I would start with figuring out what your interests are and see if there is an organization that may align with those interests. For instance, I volunteer within my profession on a few different levels, one being with my regulator The Law Society of Alberta, another being with my local bar association The Lethbridge Bar Association, and the third being a national organization for lawyers, The Canadian Bar Association. I also volunteer with organizations that align closely with business goals of mine, such as building a thriving solicitor practice. Part of building a solicitor practice is networking within the business community and creating a reputation, especially if you’re a solicitor who practices in that area, and therefore, volunteering with the Lethbridge Chamber of Commerce and Economic Development Lethbridge was a great choice for me. I have also volunteered with an organization that is meaningful to me from a highly personal perspective, the Lethbridge & District YWCA.

You may find that a health-oriented organization such as the Alzheimer Society, the MS Society, or the Kidney Foundation are organizations that are close to you due to your own health or the health of someone close to you. Perhaps you’re an animal lover and may gravitate toward volunteering with the Lethbridge Humane Society or the Lethbridge Therapeutic Riding Society. Perhaps you’re passionate about youth and families in our community and are interested in volunteering with Big Brothers & Big Sisters, the Boys & Girls Club, or the Lethbridge Family Centre. There are no shortage of organizations to volunteer with and these are just a handful of some in Lethbridge, but whatever you choose, if you choose something that fills your cup, it won’t feel like an obligation you’re being forced to do, but rather something you enjoy doing and look forward to.

Knowing When to Step Away

If you join an organization and at the outset it is something that you enjoy doing and look forward to but becomes something that you resent or is causing you undue stress, it is okay to shelve that opportunity – either for a later time or indefinitely. I think there is a tendency to feel like once you’ve committed to an organization, that you can’t ever step away; and while I’m no advocate for doing so on a whim or committing when you don’t actually have the time and energy to commit, I am an advocate for ensuring that you look after you first. If you don’t do this, you can walk yourself straight into burnout – and that’s a place that can be really difficult to come back from.

A component of putting yourself first is taking stock of how you’re feeling and what you’re involved with that contributes to that feeling. If you’re finding that an opportunity, especially one you’re volunteering for, isn’t filling your cup any longer or is actively draining your cup on a continual basis, it may be time to consider stepping away.

Volunteering is a wonderful way to build your professional skills, network, and contribute to your community in a positive way. Consider which of the two ways you prefer to volunteer, then select an organization that interests you, then jump in and get started!

About the Author

Charlene Scheffelmair is a partner with Davidson & Williams LLP in Lethbridge, Alberta. She practices primarily in the areas of corporate and commercial law; residential and commercial real estate; estate administration and planning; and foreclosures.

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