On being ... better than win-win

By Ingrid Sapona

These days, many high schools require students to do a certain number of community service hours. I don’t know when this phenomenon started, but I think it’s a great idea. As I see it, the potential benefits to the volunteer sector are huge -- and odds are at least some kids will end up with experiences that change them in some positive way.

Of course, not every student will approach the requirement with enthusiasm, but what’s the harm in at least trying to instill a commitment to community service? Even if “instilling” is too lofty a goal, there’s something to be said for just getting in the habit of putting in time and energy into something meant to benefit others.

When I was growing up we didn’t have such a requirement, so you could say I was a bit of a late bloomer when it came to doing volunteer work. Oh sure, I’d lend a hand if someone asked for one, but I didn’t go looking for things to help with. For a long time I felt stymied because I couldn’t figure out where to volunteer, or what I might actually do. Eventually I decided the best way to start is to just start, so I chose a charity that had a cause I felt was important.

This approach, though good in theory, resulted in a few false starts. More than once I found myself caught in an unhealthy and counterproductive loop where I was doing things I didn’t enjoy, or working with people I didn’t particularly like or respect, which either made me dread going or contributed to my being less effective or useful than I intended.

I think I ended up in this trap because I believed people should only volunteer for altruistic reasons. I now realize, however, that altruism, while a bonus, isn’t the only motivator -- or even necessarily the best reason for volunteering. Indeed, I think the best volunteers are those who have a personal stake of some sort, whether it’s absolute devotion to the organization’s cause or just the hope that by volunteering they’ll learn something new or improve a skill. (For example, an immigrant who, by volunteering, practices his or her English by interacting with other English speakers, or someone who gains computer proficiency by volunteering to do office work for an organization.)

Once I felt more comfortable with the idea that a good volunteer situation is one where both sides gain, I needed to think about some of my own needs that might be fulfilled by volunteering. One obvious need is the feeling that I’m contributing to an organization that is doing good. But that need can often be fulfilled by donating money.

Through trial and error I realized an important role volunteer work plays in my life. Given that most of my work comes and goes via e-mail, sometimes (particularly on cold, grey winter days) I feel I don’t get quite enough face-to-face contact with living, breathing humans. I’m not complaining (and no, it’s not just that I’ve made my bed and I’ll lie in it, thank you). But, that said, I must admit I find I relish face-to-face meetings with clients almost as much as other businesspeople seem to shun them. So, the truth is, I’ve found that volunteer work is a great way for me to top-up my human contact quota.

I had a great reminder of this just the other day as a result of a meeting for a committee I’m on at my sail club. I knew the ultimate outcome of the meeting would be me drafting or writing something (that’s what organizations usually turn to me for), which I didn’t mind doing because the documents should help move an important program along. But aside from the feeling I’m working toward a greater good, the meeting itself was quite fulfilling. I drove home invigorated by the interaction and the interchange of ideas.

That meeting left me feeling so energized, I had to write about it. Clearly the “story” here isn’t what our little committee is up to -- it’s the larger issue of volunteering. I offer this column as food for thought to those who might think, like I used to, that volunteerism requires altruism (which my dictionary defines as selflessness). Sure, you should at least believe in the organization or cause, but a little self-interest never hurt. In fact, finding volunteer work that benefits you in some way will start an endless chain of wins: you’ll feel fulfilled (a win), the organization will benefit by your efforts (another win), you’ll remain committed to volunteering (another win), and so on. So come on -- why not help yourself by lending a hand?

© 2007 Ingrid Sapona