[POV] Overcoming the Challenges of Volunteering

A POV About the Most Common Challenges We Encounter While Volunteering and How to Deal With Them

We all know we could do more to help out. Whether it’s to support the environment, serve the underprivileged, or advocate for greater equality. We may decide to donate, adopt more ethical purchasing habits, or simply learn more about the issues. But perhaps the most direct means of contributing to society is volunteering.

People volunteer for different reasons. For some, it is a civic duty — on a level with voting and showing up for jury summons. For others, it’s a way to connect with fellow human beings–to open the heart and find a greater sense of universal meaning through acts of service. Then there are those who volunteer because they are passionate about a cause. They want to see results from their efforts and to sustain long-term change by scaling grassroots efforts. One woman I spoke to even said “I volunteer because I can’t afford therapy.” Watching people suffer on the news every day was painful; taking action relieved some of the pain.

But volunteering can bring challenges and you need to be prepared for the motivation that urges you to volunteer to potentially be undermined by those challenges. If you have rigid ideas about what outcome you’re seeking, you may soon find plenty of reasons to quit.

For example, what happens if you start volunteering to connect with your community, but your coordinators are critical micro-managers who leave you feeling isolated? What happens if you volunteer to grow your capacity to be compassionate,  but start to notice feelings of self-righteousness and moral superiority stemming from what you’re doing? What if you volunteer to fight hunger, but year after year you become disenchanted seeing that hunger hasn’t gone anywhere? Perhaps it’s worsened, even when there are hundreds of volunteers to replace you if you leave.

I have volunteered for many different causes in three different countries. And throughout, a few key issues prevailed. I want to share the five most frequent challenges I encountered while volunteering and how I dealt with them.


#1 Feeling Like We’re Not Doing Enough

There are many reasons we can feel we aren’t doing enough when we volunteer. Many times I have been on site when there was a surplus of helpers. I found myself standing around a lot, waiting for something to do. A task would open up, and I would jump on it before anyone else could, partly because I was so uncomfortable being idle. In moments like this, I really couldn’t help but wonder if I was helping or just competing to feel useful.

Other times we feel we aren’t doing enough because there is such a wide gap between what’s needed and what we can do as individuals. I experienced this when canvassing door to door over the course of five weeks. Most people weren’t interested, many weren’t home, a few were even hostile. While I could pat myself on the back for showing up, when I’m honest with myself, I really didn’t feel like I was doing much.

While feeling like we contributed to a cause in a significant way is validating, It’s ultimately not the point. We can’t always know how much impact our service has. But if everyone did their part, many of the world’s issues would be swiftly resolved.

Too many people refrain from volunteering, not because they don’t want to help, but because they feel they can’t do enough or think someone else would be better at it. So, when we feel dispirited by our individual limits, it can help to determine a timeframe in which we will commit to a cause and stick to it — showing up whether we feel useful or ornamental. If you stick around long enough, you will likely feel desperately needed sometimes and useless in others, but what’s important is you’re showing up. You’re not leaving the work for others.


# 2 Not Feeling Connected

For many people, volunteering can be a very humanizing, humbling, and connective experience.  However, while gains in perspective, emotional openings, and deepened feelings of connection can be wonderful byproducts of volunteering, we are in trouble if we think they are the product.

We often have strong ideas of what compassion and service should look and feel like. We might help out at a textbook drive and think “I came here to serve my community, but I don’t feel any more deeply connected than before”. This is a purchaser mentality; we want to feel a certain way because of all the nice volunteering we did.

Often when I have gone to a volunteering event with expectations that it would be a profound experience, I found myself frustrated. I didn’t feel like I was helping people or even being compassionate; I just felt like I spent the day labeling boxes off in a corner by myself. But most volunteer situations don’t need our intense emotions, they need help completing tasks. Often repetitive, dry, and unremarkable tasks, that don’t make for great stories.

Accepting this has made me a better volunteer because my efficacy is not as dependent on how integrated and accepted I feel. And the meaningful experiences still come, just not always in the way I expect.


#3 Struggling with Self-Righteousness

Self-righteousness is a pretty common side effect of volunteering. It’s often easier to identify in others than in ourselves, but most of us are guilty of it. I don’t think that it’s self-righteous simply to tell people that I volunteer. However, there are those who believe that talking about your good deeds undermines them. In my experience, self-righteousness over volunteering has more to do with an ‘us-and-them’ posture.

Either I feel self-righteous because I, the helper, am serving “the helped”. Or because I have aligned myself with both the helpers and helped, and I condemn those I believe contribute to the problem. Self-righteousness is often subtly divisive in some way. I can often identify it in myself by the following signals: Strong feelings of indignation towards people I think aren’t helping the cause; excessive passion when I speak about my volunteering efforts and the causes I care about; frequently citing my volunteer experience as the basis for why I have a better understanding of the situation.

Passion for a cause isn’t a bad thing. But we have to watch out for unchecked egotism and unresolved anger because through volunteering, they can disguise themselves as passion and righteous fervor.

Once I volunteered with a group in which one woman typified the self-righteous volunteer beautifully. As soon as we arrived on site, she began weeping on behalf of the patrons who came in need, even as they themselves were calm, sometimes even joking around. Then she got tense and started snapping commands at the other volunteers.

Later, when we went off-site to purchase needed clothes for patrons, she rather dramatically announced to the clerk and the line of people behind us that she would pay for all their purchases. I can’t with 100% certainty say that she was fundamentally self-righteous. All I knew was that in those examples among others, attention kept being drawn back to her, her intense reactions to the situation, and her gestures of magnanimity.

Our tendency to be self-righteous often comes from our desire to be helpers. But the problem with positioning ourselves as helpers is that we make some other group “the helped”. The patrons needed help, sure, but at the end of the day, they’re just ordinary people. When we don’t check our self-righteousness, we inevitably view people who need help as “other”. However, we can mitigate this by asking ourselves “Are my strong emotions essential to completing this task?” and “In this moment, am I more focused on being a helper, or on being helpful?”


# 4 Strong Differences with Coordinators and Other Volunteers

In most volunteer sites, authority is fairly informal. Organizing volunteers is tricky and sometimes the people who end up in charge are just the ones who show up the most or the people who like to take charge. As such, minor disputes frequently arise around the best way to do things. Often, we step on site and immediately notice a workflow that is inefficient, or just plain chaotic, and are unsure if we should make an issue of it.

I’m no conflict resolution expert. However, I have gained two pieces of insight that apply to most situations of volunteer discord. The first is that before you try to change how a facility operates, you must understand the ecosystem – why it is the way it is. The second is that some people desperately need to be in charge and competing with them in that environment, when a new group of people will be there tomorrow, really isn’t worth the energy.

The focus should be on getting done what you can while you’re there. The people who make for the most dedicated and consistent volunteers aren’t always who you’d choose to hang out with in your free time.  Volunteer opportunities attract disparate groups who might agree on nothing else but the cause at hand, but the person who shows up the most will often make the rules and if you want to change those rules, you need to put in the time.

I’ve had experiences putting in five-plus hours at a facility, only to have some fresh-faced and overconfident volunteer arrive late and tell me I shouldn’t do something the way I had spent the whole day doing it. People who do this aren’t taking the time to understand the effort and thought behind the system in place before criticizing it. And even If they’re right, they’re not right. Know what I mean?


# 5 Not Knowing How Much We Should Talk About Volunteering

Sometimes it’s difficult to know how much we should discuss our service. It takes discernment to know when we are sharing our volunteer experiences because they are important to us, and when we are trying to score points for our generosity. I have witnessed myself doing both, but in general, my view is that it’s good to talk about volunteering.

It’s very normal to discuss and post on social media about our vacations, our Friday nights out, and sports teams, with the result that these things become major channels for how we relate to one another. The idea of publicizing our personal volunteer work at that scale somehow feels like it undoes the initial good of the act. But in my view, if our culture connected over volunteering as much as vacations and social events, it’s not hard to imagine that having really positive impacts on society.

That being said, you know you’ve had a constructive conversation about volunteering if it’s left you feeling unified with others, rather than distinguished or special. Last summer I was at a pro-environment protest at a camping site on the border of Spain and Portugal. There was a signup sheet to do volunteer tasks around the camp and I entered my name to clean the bathrooms. I have historically tended to be chatty about this stuff, so I told most people I spoke to about what I planned to do. “Yep, from 10 am to 1 pm tomorrow I’m signed up to clean the bathrooms.” But most people weren’t responsive when I told them about my task, and I wasn’t sure why. It’s not that I expected to get any response in particular, but was surprised to keep getting blank stares.

The following day when I showed up for my shift at the cinder block building that housed the bathrooms, I was again surprised to see that there were other people cleaning them. They hadn’t signed the sheet, they just cleaned up messes as they occurred then left. As more people came to use the facilities, they would pick up mops or rags, tidy up a bit, and then head out. At first, I was confused, I made clear to people, even as they came to the building that I was on the bathroom shift. But gradually I started to understand why people were and had been so unresponsive. It was because for most of the people there, cleaning and helping out was a given, it wasn’t something that set someone apart. Everybody did their share and nobody was special for it. I was there mostly as insurance, it seemed.

I hadn’t previously encountered groups of people in which this was the norm. But I learned from this experience that while it’s important to volunteer and encourage volunteering – in the grand scheme of things, helping and doing our part is the natural order of things. It doesn’t make us special that we help and share, it’s just that we disconnect ourselves from the greater whole when we don’t. So, my standing around the bathroom proclaiming to everyone who would listen that I was “the volunteer” was kind of laughable in a way.

When we talk about volunteering, we can of course share the things we’re proud of. But it is also so valuable to discuss the lessons we’ve learned and aspects that challenged or humbled us. Because it’s those aspects that can be the greatest unifiers.



There’s a reason Don Quixote is such an iconic literary figure. He represents the internal drive to help and serve, and how clumsy and faltering the results can be sometimes. Helping others can be a much smoother process if we accept and prepare for that turbulence, and still show up anyway. Because at the end of the day, that is what Don Quixote would do. At least I think so, I haven’t finished the book yet.

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