Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Recently overheard at an anonymous meeting of JOIN-A-HOLICS …


“Hello my name is Michelle and I am a volunteer-a-holic.”

“Welcome Michelle!” chimes in the many sombre faces around the dimly lit church basement.
“I am a ‘joiner’. I am never able to quietly sit back and be satisfied to just be a member, I always have to put my hand in the air and volunteer to help.”
“We hear you sista … here here … never can just sit on my hands either …” resonates around the rows of chairs.

“Even though each time it ends badly and I swear to never offer my volunteer time again to any organization I always get swallowed back in and eventually spit back out. The many school mom planned activities I was so glad to be done with when my boys grew up wore me down over and over. Then the extra-curricular activities committees, and organizing of fundraiser and events.”
A big heavy all-knowing sigh rippled through the air.
“The local activities that turned into provincial teams, winter games committees and next thing I knew I was sitting on recreational centre board chairs, Karate club provincial boards. Endless meetings, countless hours for the greater team while my own personal time and my children’s mother time got swallowed up in overextended volunteer hours.”

The blank stares sat numb on their hands as if in fear of blurting out an offer to help. The very illness that brought them to the camaraderie of the meeting can also just as easily rip them apart. For join-a-holics, even asking for a volunteer to bring some after-meeting baking or show up early to start the coffee was a gateway drug to that slippery slope of giving too much, of not knowing when volunteerism ends and martyrdom starts.

She continued almost in tears, “At first everyone appreciates all the little things you do, all the efforts, the fresh ideas, the endless hours and enthusiasm but then those great ideas need a committee, a team, a team leader, and it all happens again.” Her voice cracks in the rawness of the moment. “I walked away many times over the years. Quit committees. Left town. Moved. But it always starts again. They find me. Those who see my volunteer giving nature and know I can get a job done and done well.” Another sympathetic sea of head nodding bobs around the group.
“When my boys were grown I swore off all volunteering and recognized that I could not even be a joiner. Joining anything meant sooner than later I was up to my pick-me-pick-me-eyeballs in a crush of overextended give-back free work to people who really didn’t care to help but took the glory without the effort.”
A loud “AMEN” rang out in the back.

“I even had a relapse and found myself back on the street and sitting on Chamber of Commerce Boards and hit a volunteer-low serving in elected municipal government” A gasp chilled the room of shocked faces. “I fell off the give-back wagon in a big way but thankfully a move out of town helped me crack that set back in my join-a-holics recovery.”
“Stay strong girl … you can have your own time again … be selfish and say no” were the revival shouts around the room.

“Eventually I took up my own interests, my own professional associations and I told myself joining became a career move necessity. Sitting at annual general meetings was getting harder and harder to not shout out the likes of ‘why don’t you do it this way or that way’  and before I knew it I was on committees and boards and back in the thick of it. In the beginning it was always fine everyone likes the fresh face, the new ideas, and the enthusiasm but then it starts. They build you up, back you up, push you into lead board roles and next thing you know you are on top and blamed for all that is wrong with an organization founded long before you showed up and hopefully will survive long after you are gone. It is like the government in that people vote you in, the rules and bylaws, the budgets and strategic plans are in place and rolling long before you ever arrived but heaven forbid any downturn or disappointment as you are the brunt of all things wrong.”

Her voice was drifting in her thoughts while a few keeners in the front row encouraged her to go on.
“If there is a positive outcome and success there is no ‘I’ in team and many many hands, many members, many volunteers all show up and say they worked tirelessly hand in hand to achieve the positive future. BUT if/when there is any downturn in the organization, the economy, the lack of funding, the lack of volunteers, and things do not go well as a key volunteer, a board head, a task force lead, then all of a sudden the team steps back and the lead role becomes single handedly the blame for all that went wrong.”
The join-a-holics meeting sat in awkward silence as she started to sob uncontrollably. “it’s not the countless overextended give-back-hours I miss” she sobbed, “or the half day electronic cross-province meetings, the exhausting time-zone shifting flight delayed travel cross country for board meetings, the out of pocket expenses and weeks a year away from my own work and home – no I knew full well what I was taking on and exhausting myself in.”
“We’ve all been there … no praise no glory … no appreciation for your efforts now is there” came the cries from those feeling her pushed-to-the-limits volunteer spirit.

As she composed herself she had one last message to share in hopes of helping her fellow overextended-volunteers. “A part of me thinks I would do it all again for any cause, any organization, any association I believe in but then I know in my heart of hearts I can’t for one simple single reason”. The crowd sat eagerly waiting for perhaps a gem of hope for their own over-volunteering-recovery.
“The hardest part when bad things happen to good volunteers is that when all is said and done, the friendships gained, the hours and hours spent enthusiastically trying to better your organizations, your profession, your industry, through giving back and volunteering to serve the board and all your colleague members … the hardest part is that if it does not happen, if all goes sideways, if that ‘team’ it takes to make a good association great cannot do the job then it is the leader, the top chair, who takes the blame, the ‘I’ that is not in team, is suddenly where it all falls.”
Feeling powerful again in her aaaaa-haaa moment she continued on preaching to the choir of those who knew that giving-too-much pain. “Now the blame I could have handled, righting wrongs, tweaking unbalanced budgets, finding much needed funds, moving forward and gladly helping fight the good fight but that is not the problem. The heartbreak, the reason why you seek out a church basement join-a-holics meeting to swear off ever volunteering again is simply the reason you showed up to help in the first place … the people, the colleagues, who have now become friends, associates, industry partners. It is not the not-succeeding as a committee/board that is the heartbreak, it is the blame and more so the sad loss of all those people, now friends, colleagues you offered to represent and help who turn their backs and throw you away with the problems. It is the personal blame for the professional woes.”

The group stood up and cheered as she returned to her seat. The next speaker up at join-a-holics that evening and the next one after that all lamented the same loss. It was never for the role, the glory, the ego, the title, it was for the belief in why you volunteered, the respect for what you were passionate about, the support of colleagues to grow an association, better an industry. The push back and the desire to never want to volunteer or give back ever again comes from the lack of personal respect offered around the table when an organization struggles. Blame of volunteers who selflessly give-back should not be part of the solution.

Burned-out unappreciated volunteers are everywhere around us, sworn off giving of their time and talents ever again. Appreciate your organization and industry volunteers, your community clubs and school parent helpers, and all those people who give selflessly to better your membership experience. If things are not always on the upswing don’t personally blame or ostracize the volunteers and instead do the only acceptable action out of respect and decency - thank them and show up offering to help.

Are you a candidate for a join-a-holics meeting? I welcome your comments.
Thanks for visiting,

(who is grateful to have a lot more writing time now)