Give So It Doesn’t Hurt

Making a commitment to volunteer is great. Just remember: It's not about you.

Volunteers at the New York City Rescue Mission prepare meals during the 15th Annual Great Thanksgiving Banquet on November 25, 2013 in New York City. Hundreds of traditional Thanksgiving meals were served to people in need at the lunch. America's first rescue mission, the The New York City Rescue Mission was founded in 1872 to help provide food, clothing and shelter to people in crisis in New York City. Recent statistics by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development show that New York City's homeless population increased by 13 percent at the beginning of this year. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Volunteers at the New York City Rescue Mission prepare meals during the 15th Annual Great Thanksgiving Banquet on November 25, 2013 in New York City. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Do-gooder alert: With National Volunteer Week just around the corner — April 12-18 — the City of New York (nyc.gov/service) is reaching out via social media for its citizens to “Do Good For Your City.”

But many of us don’t need to be solicited. We already donate our time ladling at soup kitchens, visiting homes for the aged, or collecting warm clothing for the homeless; working gratis throughout the year in one capacity or another. In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics last report in February 2014 quoted about 62.6 million people of all ages volunteering last year.

I have done service of some kind for the past thirty years for schools, churches and non-profits, working beside people who are as dedicated, if not more so than me, and seen first hand what can be accomplished by those who are driven by passion, not a pay check. I will admit though even in these most charitable of circumstances, there’s always someone who you’d gladly pay to take their helping hands elsewhere.

If you’re looking to join our ranks, here’s how not to be one of them.

#1. Treat Service As Though It Is A Real Job

There are people who are just plain lazy and have no work ethic – even when they’re getting paid. So it does not surprise me when they use the “Well, I mean, I’m doing this for free,” as their excuse for doing as little as possible during the allotted time to accomplish what’s required. Why they even show up still confuses me.

#2. Don’t Over Explain Your Reasons For Volunteering

“I just feel it’s important to give back.” You are preaching to the choir as everyone was giving their time before you arrived. Stop acting as though you just invented the humanitarian wheel.

#3. Remember Service Is Not A Favor

“I could be on the golf course right now.” The foundation doesn’t need to be made aware of your “sacrifice,” as they associate sacrifice with the likes of a single mother working two jobs and denying herself doctor visits so she can buy her kid sneakers.

#4. Socialize, But Not At The Expense Of The Work

You can meet some interesting people via your altruism: someone whose handsome brother just moved to town and would love to be shown around; or who happens to be in the same business you’re in (or trying to get into), and has a line on job openings.

But the reason everyone is there is to prepare the food for the starving, homeless people on line outside hoping to eat. Let’s not keep them waiting due to self-consumed chit-chat.

#5. Don’t Act Above The Tasks At Hand

Madison Avenue. Irate woman on her cell phone: “I offered to help and they want me to lick stamps and stuff envelopes…I’ve dined at the White House for heaven’s sake.” Sometimes organizations need to keep the donation ball rolling through good old-fashioned grunt work. Sorry.

#6. Keep Your Problems Away From The Place That Already Has Enough To Solve

As far as the institution is concerned, the people with the problems are the homeless, the kids with cancer, or the lonely elderly. They may be happy to give you somewhere to go to fill the void of what’s missing in your life, but they are not your priest, therapist or mother.

#7. Save Your Negative, Competitive, Resentful Backstabbing For Your Paying Job

Perhaps playing devil’s advocate at your 9-to-5 makes you look like a problem solver, but at your volunteer gig you will be seen as the black cloud.

You will also be persona non grata if you throw down with others doing service, since if people wanted to argue, there are plenty of places they can go — from their own offices to the grocery store to public transportation.

Whether volunteering was your idea or you’re there under duress because your spouse told the head of the church bazaar that you’d be glad to help out, (wo)man-up, live up to your obligation and get it done. You just might find a fulfillment you’ve never known before.

Lorraine Duffy Merkl is a freelance writer in NYC and author of the novel BACK TO WORK SHE GOES.