Where to Volunteer: Is Bigger Better? Smaller More Fun?

?????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????By Phyllis Gates

The universe of non-profits is so huge and the opportunities so diverse that finding the organization that’s right might just be the hardest part of volunteering.

The secret is to let your passions — or at least interests — guide you. What you really, truly care about is key, but so is how you most enjoy spending your time, what you like doing. Both are important; the latter is critical. It is the only way to be sure volunteering will be rewarding for you.

To be sure, the combination of your talents, training, education and experiences – and the expertise they form — are crucial to the non- or not-for-profit organization’s needs. The biggest difference in the work you did for a salary and your labors of love is that you get to do what you like for whom you like. Sounds obvious, but retirement brings not only the culmination of the best of your abilities to fill needs in the non-profit world, but also gives the privilege of choice to you. Think about it.

For instance, if you hate meetings, despise bureaucracy or detest procedures, a big organization – or perhaps even board work — might not be for you. Certainly a small charity might be a better choice than a large, high-profile one. The same is true in reverse – if structure, order and business-like behavior is more amenable to you, go for the larger arena.

I had the interesting experience of volunteering in both at the same time, having been recruited to join the boards of a large performing arts organization and a small, specialized health-related charity. Both hit targets of my own passions – I love the theatre and film and, indeed, studied both in college. And, at the time, my mother suffered from a malady the smaller group strove to combat. I was torn and decided to add them both to my work schedule as I was not yet retired.

But the experiences, which were marketedly different — sometime amusingly, often frustratingly so – were instructive. Hence this post.

?????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????Ironically, it was the arts group — the larger, more structured and state-sponsored organization – whose meetings and programs were orderly and business like. We met in a conference room set with yellow pads and bottled water. We set goals, worked through approved procedures, established guidelines and followed protocol. We charted progress through research and measured effectiveness against the goals we had set. It was just like my office – except this “cause” was my own.

The other group, which also met monthly, gathered at the home of the organization’s benefactor, a lovely apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Quite posh, complete with a gloved elevator attendant and a maid to greet us. We were served cocktails and hors d’ouvres as we discussed issues, presented ideas and planned fund-raisers – all without the benefit of even an agenda, much less pads and pencils or a table on which to write. When discussion proceeded to unseemly length, particularly those related to an unanticipated need or crisis in the organization, our hostess would summon her maid. A checkbook would materlize and with one magnanimous gesture, cocktail hour would continue. Several of us suggested planning procedures and even made unrequited offers of our offices’ conference rooms for meetings, gestures clearly not in keeping with the organization’s culture. Not at all like my office – but we did plan benefits. We did raise funds. And we did make a difference.

Which was better? I worked for both for more than ten years, and enjoyed them both — mostly. But then, I hadn’t retired….

Phyllis Gates is a retired speechwriter and communications executive.

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