The Job of Volunteering

By Bill Levine

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This past July on a phone interview, I achieved an elusive goal: a near job offer. The hiring manager was clearly interested in my services.  He was not as usual blitzkrieging my qualifications by asking me if I had prowess in a hot coding language like Python or the more  idiosyncratic Monty Python. He just wanted an archaic COBOL developer like myself. He made it clear I could work at home and rarely have to make the long commute to the office. After two years, 260 unsuccessful job applications and innumerable bullets points in self-lauding cover letters, all I had to do was breathe at the interview and the COBOL developer job would be mine.
“So, Bill," the manager said, “What time do you want to come up tomorrow and meet the staff?”

Never, never, I thought. I was, at that second, officially retired. Rusty technically after two years of unemployment, holder of a pension and a job-searching goal finally met, it was time to move on.  
Retiring would be okay because I could concentrate my energies on the gung-ho effort needed to secure a great volunteering opening. I wanted to make up for my community service gap. My only forays into public altruism while employed had been brief with mixed reviews: I was a youth basketball coach whose most recalcitrant super-star was his son. I was a volunteer friend for a Russian immigrant back in the '80s. This relationship was short lived, lasting just along enough for the ex-USSR resident to croak me in his initial bowling outing.

I had, though, delved a little into volunteering since I was laid-off. There is a website that lists about a thousand volunteer positions in my area. Many of these opportunities are non-recurring and un-enticing. For instance, I do like word play, but I had to pass on occupying the ref’s folding chair at a charity Scrabble tournament. Scrabble players are too volatile, and I could see myself being pelted with 12-letter words’ worth of tiles.  

In fairness, though, I have secured on-going opportunities to serve as a greeter in an historic house and as a guide at a museum. These once-a-week gigs do satisfy my interest in government and history. But these opportunities are not life-mission fulfillments as volunteering post-career is often purported to provide. I may yet, but still I have not brokered peace in retirement, unless you count breaking up canine contretemps in my wife’s pet-sitting business.
My current volunteer assignments are good time killers, but I’m looking for a life-anchoring volunteer career. Achieving this is not an easy mission.
So, since my July official retirement, I have been readying for the difficult effort needed to secure a transcendent volunteering slot. I have my special volunteer resume ready. This is in the functional resume format, where any skill you have is highlighted and job chronology is down-played. I expect I will have to find and scan more online volunteer boards. I will shake my family tree to see if a non-profit directors fall out. I will have to look at each volunteer opening as having potential. Even if the assignment is to lick envelopes, I must remember that this is how Mother Teresa got her start. But volunteering requires career-length developed job skills, as well.

For instance, I have tried to use my writing skills for the better good, but in scanning hundreds of volunteer openings, I have not been successful. I have applied to write descriptive blurbs for an historical museum and to write material for an immigration centre to no avail. Many of the volunteer jobs in writing also require a public relations background, which renders these gigs off-limits to me.
I will say that I was enticed by the fundraising volunteer slots. Fundraising is probably the largest occupational type available in community volunteering. It often requires writing and database skills, which I have. But the showstopper for me was previous fundraising creds. Sure, it didn’t need to be in the same area as the opening. Like I'm sure that Save The Hippos experience could be leveraged to snag a  Rescue The Rhinos gig. Unfortunately, all I could offer was chauffeur experience for my son’s collection efforts for a basketball team trip.  All I learned there was that Dunkin Donuts does allow loitering.  
But even if I get a great volunteer job, a Trump-like “Your fired” could always be lurking in my future. Indeed, the well-kept secret about volunteering is that it is not a lifetime position. In fact, I have garnered the double whammy of being unemployed and un-volunteered.

My first foray into volunteering post-employment was an opportunity to be an IT resource for three online group forums. This was for a social service agency that had helped my family, so there was a strong incentive to give back. Maybe too much incentive. I came from the land of mainframe computers and was not a website hot shot. But I did really want to help and the director’s needy demeanor egged me on. I thus   came up with was a robust “I will give it my best shot.”

I thought I could be a conduit between the social workers and the help desk of the company that owned the group forum platform. It turned out, though, I was supposed to hit the ground running. My volunteer opportunity was a mission critical one for the agency. The forum  boards were the lubricant of the agency’s social out-reach. Every day,  the posts/comments on these message boards disseminated parenting-tips, calls-for-help, commiseration, and angst. They enabled the social workers to quickly take the pulse of their client base.

The director, then, was not happy when I crashed an entire forum one  night as I was staving off technical intimidation by diving – or maybe belly-flopping – into the code. I extinguished my panic after just a few hyper-ventilations and called the tech services of the company that hosted the forums. The good news was that they could restore the forum, but it would cost $150. To soothe my guilt and embarrassment, I offered to pay for half of the restore. The director accepted my offer, but I could tell she wasn’t pacified by my gesture.  

My last official act as forums technical resource was to meet with the social worker staff to review outstanding technical problems on the forums. By the end of the meeting, it was clear I was the outstanding technical problem. I started by futzing around with my laptop in an effort to bring up a big-screen version of the forum menu, eventually needing help to launch. From there, it was all downhill.

The next week, I got the call from the director to come in for a chat. I anticipated some negative feedback, but didn’t expect her to say “The staff is not confident in your ability to maintain the forums, so this role is not working out." I was being fired from my volunteer position!   
Driving home from being canned, it occurred to me that my dismissal could be a punchline for a Rodney Dangerfield joke. “How bad an employee am I? I'll tell yah, I was fired from a VOLUNTEER job.” To my  credit, I had avoided being fired in 38 years of paid employment; yet this didn’t make my dismissal much less embarrassing. Besides, there is no un-volunteer insurance. Sure, they can’t give you money each week, but a good plan could have the feds call you and commiserate for 20 weeks.
Two years later, I have a better perspective on the termination. The agency should have understood that the forums were their life blood and that it needed a vetted, paid employee to handle the job, not a volunteer. My most incompetent move in my brief two-month stint was  not crashing the system, it was not asking job candidate-like questions about the importance of the forums to the organization. I may then have bowed out, understanding that this opportunity was a bad match.

The best advice on getting a volunteer slot – and keeping it – is to remember that a volunteer position is not life’s participation trophy.

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