The Volunteer Mindset

Part of my hesitation to volunteer has been self-doubt. Why do I want to volunteer? What do I really think about getting from the experience? I mean, why am I even writing this piece?

What got me to cave in was the thought that as long as I am contributing something, it wouldn’t matter what my motives are. But to answer the question to my heart, I doubt I’ll ever know.

Despite this, I set out to examine what had happened to me since volunteering. What have I learned since?

One major influence on how I view volunteerism was an observance that different sets of friends of mine have made.

They complain that people from business backgrounds tend to think of volunteerism as just Corporate Social Responsibility. This rationale goes: We have the money, we could spare giving every once in a while. It’s what people want to see from us. It makes us feel good about ourselves. The world needs our help. Aren’t those good enough reasons?

I can almost hear Michael Scott from The Office saying, “I could’ve used the money to make more but hey, I didn’t. I gave it to charity instead. It’s like wow! What a magnanimous person.” If this person ever decides to go to a community, they would most likely act like a visitor in a zoo.

The thinking is obviously as flawed but as bad as it sounds, I feel like I’m constantly guilty of this.

Weighing decisions usually gets me to try to be rational. I mean, what do I get in exchange for what I give? But it is only natural to feel this way. Each choice is a transaction. It’s what makes up life and what truly reveals our nature, our values and how we prioritize our life.

The pitfall happens when this rationale ends up puffing up your bloated ego. You’re looking for reasons to give, so you lay out your strengths and what you can offer. You want to reason why you should do it so you think of the things you could get, be it recognition or a pat on the back. Suddenly, you see yourself as much more than who you really are. Despite knowing all this, anyone could still fall for this misconception when dropping one’s guard.

Here’s why this kind of rationale is wrong in so many levels, and possibly answers why it is so misleading.

For one thing, this idea assumes that only those with excess can give. While everyone has something to give, it doesn’t have to be excess in the grandest sense. Part of volunteerism is sacrificing something dear and limited like sleep, time, or money. 

Secondly, the person is obviously not doing this for anyone but for the self. This is self-serving, not public service. A major hindrance to volunteerism is selfishness, but a major factor to faux-volunteerism is also selfishness. This person is not fooling anyone but him or herself. But this isn’t necessarily bad, it’s still a foot in the door, a step to the right direction.

Then lastly, in community cases, this has traces of the so-called white man’s burden. There is a tiny nugget of consciousness in the differences between “us” and “them” (the privileged and the poor) in this kind of belief. This may have good intentions but it’s on a faulty basis. There is no divide. There is only an “us” now.  If there should be any guilt, it is tied to a responsibility to correct the wrong; together, not alone.

The worse side of this last point is the credit given to inequality.  Not inequalities in injustice but on human status. It is condescending. People are most ashamed of things they can’t control. Likewise, people are most proud of the things they didn’t really earn for themselves;  It is like being chosen as part of the elite.

But social status says nothing about whether a person is lazy or not, good or not, competent or not. It may not even tell you anything about a person’s luck, if they’re born geniuses or with happy dispositions or in stable families or with good genes.

This is the root that leads to the kind of conclusions where centuries of slavery can be considered a choice. Nobody wants to struggle living day-to-day and nobody chooses to feel like they are a burden to society or are incapable of being independent. There are some things you need to be born into to truly understand. As limited beings, there is a dark side to the moon. We may all have 24 hours in a day, but we won’t have the same opportunities for advancement.

It is rude, lofty, and not in the nature of volunteerism but of narcissism to think of volunteerism this way. To be patronizing is to be ignorant. As they say, the average person will think himself above everyone else. So we are all guilty of this at one point or another. But is this reason to throw in the towel?

Correcting this has a lot to do with the stages of volunteerism. As there are some things that we need to pass through to get to, there could also be bad intent with good results as there are good intent with terrible outcomes. It’s all part of learning from life itself.

I am still new to this. I could only document my thoughts on my own journey so far. Here I make a lot of assumptions so there’s a good chance that my arguments may be faulty. If you tell me which points you agree with or not, I’m open to discuss and correct this essay. So let’s start.

Stage 1: It starts with awareness

Actually, it begins with asking the question why. It happens when there’s a burden that tugs at your heart once you notice something you can’t unsee. It may be something that is so wrong it can’t be right or the way things are run. But there it is staring naked at your face.

This stage may seem pretty bleak at first. When you start feeling too weak or powerless against this injustice or imbalance, there is a tendency to just give up. But don’t do that. It’s a calling.

This is the very first step to volunteerism. Although, yes, sharing lots of social awareness posts on social media may not seem like it could solve anything. It won’t if it stops there. The real next step of action is to actually do something about it. What do you do, or what can you do?

Stage 2: Setting realistic goals

This is one of the first lessons that I have learned. I got it from one of the veterans of volunteerism. I have suffered from not heeding this in other aspects of my life. The hard truth is, you can’t do everything on your great ideas list. Just pick the best one and focus on doing it one step at the time.

This has a lot to do with your ability to stay committed to your advocacy. You have to be humble enough to realize that you can’t do everything. You need to factor in the time, effort, and skill that it takes to execute the work. Everyone has great ideas, but the success happens in the execution.

That said, committing to a volunteer project can get overwhelming at a certain point. Volunteerism is a community effort. You can’t make big changes without others on your side.

This only means that you have to realize that there WILL BE times when you would feel burnt out, but take comfort in the fact that a little break is enough to get you going again and that there are others to back you up.

There will always be work to do, just pitch in where you can. You won’t solve world hunger, you can’t stop global warming. What you are doing is prevention and risk reduction.

The problem is, when you are high on energy, you feel positive that you could do anything. But the higher you go, the deeper you crash. The best way is to work with the momentum while keeping tabs on reality. Get a real perspective to be prepared for the seasons life brings. Have a support system to see you through the chinks.

Stage 3: Dropping the entitlement

There is no customer service in volunteerism. When you volunteer, expect that there will be work to do. Don’t look for the free food or recognition.

When the organizers are experienced, you could count on them to know and orient you on how you could help. But sometimes, small-time organizers need volunteers because they are understaffed and they wouldn’t be able to accommodate you. It helps if you come prepared.

Just know what to expect, or don’t expect anything at all. Most of the time, you just have to think of ways you could help as you go along. So be open to making a lot of mistakes and having a lot of outrageous ideas for brain dumping. But never assume you know more than anyone else.

Stage 4: Not comparing; doing your own thing

Everyone has a part to play. In volunteering, it is hard to see other people working when you are busy. You have to trust that they are doing their part. Don’t let yourself feel used and unappreciated. Believe the best in people and focus on your task and what you could bring into the table. This is teamwork, not a competition.

Always remember that you are a volunteer, not a martyr. Nobody is forcing you to do anything. You chose this. Just give the courtesy to give the team a chance to have a replacement when you really want to back out.

Stage 5: You don’t know anything

The worst helpers are the ones who think they know the situation better than those they are helping out. Listen first. You can’t know what other people need without understanding the first-hand experience of being in their shoes. Enter the field with an open mind. Take it all in.

Much of our circumstances shape the way we think. Therefore one person’s logic or thought process is different from another’s. The difference in this thinking has nothing to do with intellect or education. It mostly has something to do with culture, on how circumstances have reacted differently to different people with different circumstances defined by things they can’t control.

Take into account the marshmallow test. In the study, they found that children born into the lower income bracket tend to have difficulty delaying gratification. The scientists then decided that this was the reason why these children would have difficulty in securing their futures.

It was only later revealed that this was caused by a natural survival instinct they have adapted to from their situation. For these kids, there is greater risk for the marshmallow to disappear than to still be there. So they eat it before the opportunity passes them by.

Upon closer inspection, the kids who were used to food on the table also had reason to believe that it would stay there later so they chose to delay gratification. In these households, children who obey could expect a better reward, so they did so with those prospects.

It turns out that those children who were considered to be able to “succeed” in life (in the conventional sense) by delaying gratification had the advantage of having  parents who could give them the chance to think less about day-to-day survival and more about their futures. It’s simple as that.

In conclusion, if the thing that is holding you back from volunteering is yourself, don’t worry about it. You don’t have to be cleared before volunteering. Let the experience change you along the way.

A great man once said that he doesn’t bother judging himself — or others for that matter. He says to leave the judging for the gods to do. For the heart is as mysterious as the deep uncharted oceans, and man is naught but a mere mortal. You can’t judge before it is truly time to stand up in the judgement seat. So just try to be the best that you could be and just leave it at that.


Written by: April Alfonso, iVolunteer Philippines


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