Invaluable Advice from One Volunteer to Others
I remember my first day of work like it was yesterday. I felt hopelessly lost and out of my depth. Nothing during my studies or the years leading to my professional debut prepared me for the reality of work life. Nothing really could. Because the truth is, nothing beats real-world experience.
This unspoken truth applies to the field of volunteering too – it’s almost impossible to know what the experience is going to be like until you’re in the thick of it. That’s why it’s invaluable to talk to those who’ve been there, to learn from the first-hand accounts of those who’ve already dedicated weeks, months or even years of their time to giving back to causes they believe in.
Few are richer sources of wisdom on this topic than my sister, Jessica Kavonic. She donated much of her time to the Volunteer Wildfire Services (VWS) during her student years. She also spent almost a year training and raising funds for Unogwaja, an organisation that collects money for various beneficiaries through, amongst other activities, a gruelling challenge that sees a small group of individuals cycle 1 660km over a 10-day period from Cape Town to Pietermaritzburg to take part in the Comrades Marathon on the 11th day. To top all of this, she currently works in the challenging, but rewarding field of environmental conservation and sustainability.
I sat down with her and gained her input on all things volunteer related. Here’s a collection of her insights and tips on everything from how to choose the right volunteering opportunity to how to navigate what can be an emotionally taxing journey.
Do the Groundwork
‘I think lots of people go into volunteering thinking they understand what it entails, but they don’t actually know what the project really stands for, or how much time it’s going to take, for example. So it’s important to interrogate these things quite extensively before starting out.
It’s really important that you choose an initiative that you 100% believe in.
I really believed in Unogwaja and I really believe in my work now, and that’s how I’m able to make so much time for these sort of activities. It’s so important to me that I just can’t think of doing anything else.’
Self-reflection is Key
‘Before you choose a volunteer project, reflect on your own motivations. Investigate why it is that you’re doing this and think about what you want to get out of it. Then link that to your choice of organisation. At the end of the day, it’s about matchmaking. Take VWS for example, it’s easy to get involved with a project like that because it’ll make other people look upon you favourably – you know, it makes you look and feel cool – but if you go into it for those reasons, it’s not going to be sustainable. If that’s why you’re volunteering then there are other options that won’t require you to put in as much time and in those, you won’t end up frustrating the organisers and yourself.
I’m not saying it’s okay to do something just because it makes you feel good. You still need to unpack the organisation’s goals and make sure they’re doing just work. But you do need to be real with yourself. So think about why you’re doing it and then align your volunteer work with what’s really important to you.’
Manage Your Expectations
‘It’s important to manage your expectations as volunteering opportunities aren’t exactly always what they seem from the outside. For example, with VWS, I thought, “This is going to be wonderful. I’m going to be fighting fires all the time and I’m going to help with ecological restoration and it’s going to be great”. But really, a lot of the job is just sitting at the fire-fighting base over weekends.
If you don’t manage your expectations you could easily get discouraged.
We need to realise that volunteering is not always easy – it takes a lot of time and energy. When you do feel disheartened, remind yourself that this was a choice you made and work through it. Think of volunteering like a relationship: there’ll be times when the going gets tough and it’s not all rosy, but you shouldn’t just give up on the first sign of difficulty. It’s worth sticking with it. Because volunteering will bring you joy and fulfilment too. This week you might feel unmotivated, but in a week’s time, you’ve helped someone and it brings immense satisfaction. So, yes, keep at it.’
Focus on the Small Wins
‘Related to managing expectations, you have to be realistic about what you’re able to do. You also can’t focus too much on all the stuff you don’t have control over.
There will most likely be so many small things that you are achieving. Try to identify those amid the noise and hold onto them. Because that’ll keep you going.’
Changing Mindsets is a Major Accomplishment Too
‘We tend to put all our emphasis on facilitating visible on-the-ground changes, but for me, bringing about mindset changes and building agency is almost more important. As an example, when I first started meeting with urban planners, they didn’t want to take the environment into consideration at all. Three years later, after much time spent working together and building partnerships, a new planner joined the team and asked the same question the others had been asking in the beginning: “Why is there an environmentalist in the room?” And then an amazing thing happened: a colleague of his who had been giving me a hard time years back answered him and gave a better explanation of the value of nature than I could have ever given. He had completely changed the way he thought.
It’s those moments that keep me going because I feel like that’s how you facilitate bigger, more sustainable change down the road – by creating better systems, better ways of working together, by building relationships and helping others to realise the importance of a cause. When we nurture new champions for our causes, we hopefully unlock greater shifts. Because they can take the cause forward and are often in a better position to do so than we are, so we can then just help and enable them.’
Human Connection is a Powerful Fuel
‘Whatever you think you’re going to get out of volunteering, the truth is, you’re probably going to get so much more. And one of the most important things you’ll walk away with is new connections with like-minded people. It’s unbelievable, you meet someone for the first time and you have this instant connection – it’s like you’ve been friends for ages – because you’re coming from a similar place, both wanting to make a real difference. And you get inspired by these people, so you want to work even harder, volunteer even more. Then you meet more people and get even more inspired. It’s a beautiful cycle. That’s been one of my greatest learnings and one of the things I’m most grateful for.’
Look after Yourself
‘When you give so much of yourself to other people and a cause you so deeply believe in, you sometimes end up losing yourself.
If you look after yourself, you can give more.
You have to put a few boundaries in place, guard your heart and take some time for you. That doesn’t mean you have to stop caring, but you do need to take a Saturday afternoon every now and then to just relax and reflect. If you don’t, you’ll burn out and then you’re not going to be able to help anyone.
Having a support system in place is also important. It’s hard to make the time for volunteering without one. So before you commit to a project, just make sure your family and those closest to you understand what it entails and are on board too. ’
Be Open about Your Struggles
‘If you start to question whether your involvement with a volunteer initiative is sustainable, speak to the project organisers or founders about your concerns. It’s critical that you keep the lines of communication open if something isn’t working for you. You’ll probably find that your coordinators will be more than willing to try to accommodate you and work together to find a solution. You also don’t want to waste anyone’s time, including your own, so honesty is essential here.’
Make Sure You Have Fun
‘It’s important that volunteer work doesn’t start to feel like a chore, because if it does, it’ll be harder to sustain and you won’t be well positioned to give of your best. So, make sure you align yourself with an activity that you enjoy. I had a lot of fun during my time at VWS because I’d have amazing conversations with fellow volunteers during nighttime training and I enjoyed hiking in the mountains in the evenings and driving around the peninsula on Saturdays. That kept me inspired and going back week after week, even when we weren’t fighting fires.’
Think you’re ready to start volunteering? Sign up with Brownie Points to find out more about the various opportunities out there and to start gaining some real-world experience in this highly rewarding field of work.
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