I seem to be full of metaphors today: “one door closes, another opens”. Or “Nina has left the building”. Or “The End” followed by a mike drop.
Three years ago I said yes to a volunteer role with my local camera club. That role had the lofty title of Program and Education Director. Having worked in corporate Canada for 35 years, I knew a Director was a big deal and that taking it on meant a serious commitment of ideas, time and energy. Three years later, one pandemic later (hopefully) and more than 35 club meetings and events later, I can honestly say that was true. I ended my stay in that role today, turning it over to another club member who I hope will enjoy it as much as I did.
That doesn’t mean that it was all fun and games. So let’s get that out of the way. Offering time to a volunteer organization is VERY different than holding down a paying job. First and foremost, while there may be an established organization structure, you get things done in a volunteer organization through discussion and cooperation, not through orders. Asking, checking in, regular reminders and even a little praise and encouragement are far more critical to a volunteer role than I ever saw in my paid jobs. And that’s the case even when the other folks are as enthusiastic as you. And frankly, sometimes they aren’t. All of that takes time to manage.
Some people like plans, others don’t. I kept a detailed plan, with all the commitments I had made and all those I had asked others to make. And with each commitment I asked others to make came at least three reminders, included in the plan, to help ensure things were done on time. Sometimes people just forgot. All of that takes time to manage.
Next was communication. Not everybody in a volunteer organization receives information in the same way or reviews it soon after it arrives. Emails might not be read for days or weeks. Turns out I had to use at least three different channels to communicate, sharing the same message multiple times. And it takes time to set all of that up too.
Next was record keeping and finding the information that I needed. Volunteer roles do switch out personnel more often than paid roles. Volunteer roles might have some basic requirements for documentation, but generally, the holders of these roles keep their own records as they see fit. And also generally speaking, unless you are a registered non-profit, those records are not stored centrally or easily accessible electronically. It took me a long time to review the information that was available and to search out the information that wasn’t. And then I had to set up everything so that I could run it smoothly for me. More time there too.
Lastly, of course, was the pandemic. Our regular in-person club meeting structure was thrown out the window, our in-person events were no longer held and nobody knew or understood what Zoom was. Oh, how things have changed! We got on the Zoom train. The biggest and best decision we made was to invite speakers to the club through Zoom and thereby extend our reach to other countries and continents. We went after some more well-known professional photographers too, requiring more money to pay them. Everyone pulled together and made it happen. That part was spectacular.
I took on this role because my main personal interest has always been teaching. I’ve never been an accredited teacher, but all of my favourite jobs and personal activities have involved some type of knowledge sharing with others. I love to see a face light up when some new concept takes hold. So regardless of what else I did with this role, folding in as many teaching moments as possible was key to its success for me. And so I did that too, both as facilitator for others and as teacher too.
We introduced Learning Nights, where members gave short talks on specific subjects to help each other. We set up Virtual Lunch with Friends, to allow members to share information informally. We asked competition winners to take time during meetings to explain how they shot their winning images. And we set up Special Interest Groups where small groups could do a deep dive over several weeks into a photography subject of their choosing. All of this on top of regular meetings twice monthly. It’s these elements that really kept me going in the role, and the part I will miss the most.
The next most important element are the new connections I’ve made. People I would have nodded politely to in live meetings now connect regularly. I’ve helped other people become more familiar with the club and feel more comfortable about speaking up when they have a question or concern. And I regularly get emails from other members alerting me to some new discovery they have made or to ask my opinion about something they are struggling with. And the best endorsement of all: several recent enquiries about membership renewals for next season and how members can ensure they don’t miss the chance to rejoin. No better proof than that.
While I would like to say that I was successful at everything I touched/did, that wasn’t the case. Sometimes there was disappointment, in that an initiative didn’t seem to have any traction or had traction only when I did all the work. Other times it was more painful, when individuals chose to criticize me personally for a decision or outcome they did not like. As a volunteer who has to try to please everyone, we take those moments more personally too and give thought to stepping away. On the whole though, I was glad I didn’t.
Volunteering isn’t for everyone. And it can be a lot of work. And none of us should really expect anything in return. But unlike other jobs, those of us who volunteer do so because we love it, because we believe in the purpose and we see the return in kind, not through praise but through accomplishment in others.
But I have to say as well that all that effort does come at a cost. Burnout can be quite high. I really am tired mentally and after three years need a break. So, with another metaphor, I am handing off the baton. I’ll still keep my hand in though, in smaller ways.
If you have some free time, consider volunteering for something that moves you. It won’t be easy; it may not always be fun. But in the end, it will be incredibly satisfying.