Voluntary work – worth the effort?

Q: Some time ago, I was invited to do some work that relates to my hobby. It involved short pieces work on an on-going basis, and one particularly intense bout that required me to take annual leave. So I’ve made a big commitment to this new role – and, to my surprise, I haven’t been paid. I understood there was a ‘gentleman’s agreement’ that I would get paid, but nothing has been forthcoming. As it happens, I am not overly concerned about the money, but I think it would represent some measure of appreciation for what I do. My friends think I’m mad, but I’m wondering if I should continue to do it because the work relates to my hobby and helps me build up good contacts. Any thoughts? (NP, email).

I am always loath to tell people to work for nothing, which is one way of characterising what you are doing. And, right now, there is a lot of resentment among job-seekers and those who represent them about people being exploited in the workplace.

So, whatever you do, you must do it of your own free will, and know why you are doing what you do.

Volunteering can be powerful, though primarily when volunteering for organisations in the voluntary sector. Volunteering can help you get a job, or build contacts, as you’ve said, and volunteering comes in many forms.

People volunteer to coach because they love soccer. Others volunteer to help out with the drama club because their children are playing. For some, the attraction of a campaign – a project within a defined period of time – draws them into fund-raising for the local school.

In making your decision about what are you currently doing, I think you need to ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Why am I doing it? (Sample answers: to get the experience, because you enjoy it, because you don’t want to let somebody down, because you are challenging yourself at a new level or in a new area);
  2. Is it worth the time I am giving it? (Sample answers: no, because it’s ultimately not achieving what I hoped it would achieve; no, because it’s taking up too much time; and yes, because of all I am learning, the contacts I am making, and the challenges I am meeting and passing);
  3. Is it for a defined period of time / have I an exit strategy?

From what you have said, I think you see real benefits in what you are doing – but I would stay it is important to have an end in sight.

I would feel it would be good for you – and for the person you’re working for – to know that this is a temporary arrangement, a marriage of convenience so to speak, lest your enthusiastic volunteering be taken for granted.

Does the employer know why you are volunteering? Do they know what you hope to get out of it – a reference, part-time work, a full-time job, contacts, of whatever?

Without that kind of clarity – and in the absence of an end or review date – it could drift on for too long, leaving both parties bitter, and resulting in the ultimate outcome being negative.

It sounds like it might be a good time to sit down with the other party to thrash out mutual goals, and then, if it suits both of you, you can proceed with a clearer view of where you’re going – either by staying or by going.