The universe of voluntary work is a funny animal. It can be the most rewarding place, but it also creates pressures unknown to those in professional work.
Most volunteers are intrinsically motivated. They work for a cause, social, environmental or otherwise, because they believe that the status quo is unacceptable. Oftentimes, these causes are global in reach and universal in their necessity. For example: climate change affects people everywhere and if we don’t mitigate it, our lifestyles will change drastically. With stakes that high, wouldn’t you want the most capable, highly trained people to do the job?
Or put differently, wouldn’t you want the people you’ve got to be in the position that caters best to their respective strengths and abilities? You want the social media buff in your communications department, the number-cruncher in accounting and the IT-geek running your website. And for sure that’s possible when you can actually hire and fire people. But many small NGOs rely on volunteers and don’t have that luxury.
Moreover, organizations such as the Youth Future Project are also a training ground for young people to challenge themselves and learn from each other. But the job needs doing, and most of the time, the person who eventually steps forward is not the most qualified, but the one with the highest sense of responsibility. Thus, you end up with the public affairs person as treasurer, the project-manager doubling in fundraising and the folks in IT becoming the go-to-guys for everything that needs fixing. It’s a laudable attitude to be willing to leave your comfort zone in order to advance a cause you believe in. Whatever it is that compels these people to step forward when a job needs to be done; without them, many smaller NGOs would have faltered a long time ago.
However, it creates a whole new set of problems for the organization. Most of the time,people like that are already used to stepping up and learning the ropes of a new trade whenever necessary, because that’s what they do. It’s who they are. Yet, it still means that they now face a triple burden: they do not only have to combine their voluntary work with their actual, rent-paying job, they also have to find the time to read up on their new task and quickly become well-versed in a topic they knew nothing about. As an organization, we can’t appreciate this enough and should support their efforts, even if our means are limited.
Of course all this happens in a wide spectrum depending on the organization’s degree of professionalization. Yet, most people I know want to do their job well, wether paid or voluntary. They will implicitly or explicitly judge themselves by a professional standard which means that they are suddenly comparing themselves to trained accountants and experienced managers. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that they shouldn’t or that volunteer work can’t be of the same quality as professional work. On the contrary! I’ve seen volunteer-projects being run much more efficiently and professionally than major-league NGO or business activities.
My point is that those active in a volunteer organization will often feel like they’re not measuring up to the standard of professionalism. Yet, in the absence of a counterfactual, it’s hard to know when, while having no formal training or degree, you’ve reached the same level of expertise as your professional peers and thus they will keep pushing themselves to perform better. Together with chronically understaffed and underfunded projects, and the urgency inherent in social causes, this dynamic puts pressures on volunteers that are unlikely to occur in an environment where money buys you the best person for the job. As a volunteer organization, you also want the most qualified. For what it’s worth, you get me. Or anyone who’s like me.