There is tremendous need over the holiday season and often a greater than normal amount of interest in serving that need. Many individuals carve out time during the holidays to volunteer with their families, workplaces, and friends. The spirit of giving is vibrant and individuals often feel both gratitude and an abundance and empathy for others during the season.
But don’t do it unless a clear need and opportunity exists with the organization you are looking to serve.
Many have called volunteering ‘the most humbling, selfish act of kindness’. And for too many over the holiday season, volunteering can be about the feel-good experience of the volunteer instead of what is truly helpful for individuals in need and the organizations that serve them.
Time and time again, we hear organizations describe the influx of volunteers over the holidays with not enough jobs to go around. Seeing volunteers mill about waiting for their turn to serve soup on the line certainly brings to mind the common refrain, “hunger isn’t just during the holidays”.
We have also seen how holiday volunteers all want the glory jobs – the ones up front and the ones that directly interact with the service recipients. Everyone wants to serve the soup but few people want to peel the potatoes. There are a number of non-glorious responsibilities that keep a nonprofit organization running. Many are out of sight and not directly interacting with clients. But these jobs are equally important and just as critical, if not more so, to the organization continuing to run smoothly. Yes, it’s fun to play with puppies at the animal shelter, but it’s equally important to clean the cages.
Similarly, organizations often see an influx of items donated that they can’t use or go to waste. An organization once received a large donation of lightly-used sweaters from a well-meaning community drive that they didn’t have the volunteer resources to sort. Moreover, they were working on providing resources to individuals recovering from a typhoon, where the weather was 100+. Not only were the sweaters not useful, but also the organization had no space to store them.
Most meaningful volunteer experiences also require training. Holidays can be the time when training a higher volume of new volunteers, possibly too quickly, who may or may not become long-term volunteers becomes a poor use of their resources. Consider leaving the holiday season volunteering to those who know the organization well and can be most efficient during possible seasons of higher need (and stress for organizations).
Lastly, there’s the more existential reason. While volunteering your time, energy, and skills is a lovely gesture, during the holidays, ask yourself if you are doing it as a way to make up for a lack of volunteer engagement throughout the year. Are you seeking to ameliorate the guilt you feel from the overindulgence of the holidays? Or role model for your children only at this one time of the year? If you are genuinely empathetic about the condition of others and seeking ways to be helpful, consider volunteering over the summer, and better yet consistently throughout the year. Find out when volunteers go out of town and organizations are in need of extra hands and may have more time to train new volunteers. Yes, we have more time off during the winter holiday season that makes it easier to give your time. But consider taking the day off at other times during the year to volunteer. Or if volunteering during the holidays is important to you and your family, seek to engage with an organization you know well and volunteer with throughout the year, and communicate with the organization about their greatest needs. You can read more about those opportunities here.
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