New to volunteering? Some top tips for successful outcomes
“O.R.” is one of the most adaptable disciplines imaginable, and its practitioners are among the most flexible, prepared to bring scientific rigour and methods to any question even if it is outside their previous specialism. Given this adventurous approach, it is always a good idea to see if there are any tips from previous explorers.
For Pro Bono O.R., there are two types of novelty for many of us: working with charities, and working as volunteers. Neither of these are terribly difficult areas, but they both bring special issues which are worth noting. This post looks at working as a volunteer (a previous post looks at working with charities for the first time). So here are 3 misconceptions about volunteering, and 3 top tips for working as a volunteer.
Misconception 1: working as a volunteer means the charity gets your services for free. There may be no significant financial cost to the charity. But money is only one measure of cost. The time taken to brief you, to provide you with appropriate data, to listen to and implement your conclusions; and the emotional/psychological challenge of displaying the organisation’s or staff’s weaknesses, accepting reliance on an outsider, and changing mindsets if need be; these are major costs, not to be underestimated.
Misconception 2: “what is not paid for is not valued”. On the contrary, we all receive a great deal for free, that many of us value very highly, whether it is support from friends, family and neighbours; having a lifeboat service; a walk in the park; listening to the radio; leaving our unwanted goods at charity shops; votes for women – the list is endless. Ofcourse there are some free-loaders; and many free goods that we don’t notice and therefore don’t appreciate; but for most people, most of the time, payment is not the determinant of value.
Misconception 3: the lower the cost, the more likely people are to use services wastefully. It’s not quite fair to call this a misconception, as it is certainly true of some people, and some circumstances. But there are many circumstances where people are so keen not to take advantage, and not to waste the time of others, that they prefer not to ask than to risk wasting. If you doubt it, think of all those times that you haven’t liked to waste a busy colleague’s time asking for help, or waste a meeting’s time discussing a point of clarification if you think only you need it, or waste the doctor’s time with a trivial complaint.
And the top tips:
1) treat the commitment with the same respect as a paid commitment… You should treat agreement to undertake a pro bono project as a commitment just as great as anything you do under contract. Legally, of course it is not; but you will only be successful if you drive that thought from your mind. Commitment to timings and to the agreed quality should be as rigorous as if you were being paid: don’t think that because it is unpaid, standards can be lowered mid-project. Equally importantly (especially bearing in mind misconception 3, above) don’t let the client think it.
2) …but manage expectations, including your own As a volunteer, there are likely to be a lot of ‘other things’ going on in your life that could blow you off course. Do your best to make allowances for these before commitment. And remember that – especially if you have already shown yourself to be competent, reliable and honest – others will be willing to make allowances for you if you do find yourself unable to deliver. The support of the Pro Bono scheme is available to back you up, and stand in for y, if necessary – you are not alone.
3) manage your emotional involvement Chances are, you are working for free because you sympathise with the charity’s cause. You may even find this sympathy growing as your engagement progresses. Take care to balance this with your professional duties:
don’t allow your desire to do something for the cause, to override your professional judgement on the extent of your competence, or the amount of time something will take, or the amount of time you can commit to it;
don’t accept timing drift or scope drift that interferes with your own needs, however much you sympathise;
don’t allow your empathy with an organisation’s activities, culture or difficulties to override your professional judgement and willingness to challenge.
4) make the most of it! Hopefully, you are only doing this voluntarily because you think it is worth it. Don’t let any pressures that occur along the way take that away from you. Pro Bono OR is worthwhile for charities, and worthwhile for the OR Society – make sure it is also worthwhile for you.
To see some of the projects we've worked on and to find out how to get involved please visit the Pro Bono O.R. webpage