Volunteer Guilt and Taking Pride in the Small Wins

Time is a funny creature.  The older I get, the faster it seems to go and the less of it I seem to have.   I never feel like I can find enough time to accomplish even the basic day-to-day tasks like cleaning the house, going grocery shopping, cooking a nutritious meal, hitting the gym, or walking the dogs.  I often find myself yearning for and craving more time; more time to travel, more time to spend with my husband, more time to visit friends, more time to read, and more time to give back.

Over the past year, especially, I have berated myself for not giving enough time to the causes I am most passionate about.  I have been overcome with what I call volunteer guilt, which I define as a feeling of inadequacy, culpability, or self-reproach for actual or perceived laziness or inaction in the service of others, usually resulting in a weariness of mind and a sense of hopelessness and futility.

volŸunŸteer guilt – noun –  vä-lən-ˈtir ’gilt

(1)  a feeling of inadequacy, culpability, or self-reproach for actual or perceived laziness or inaction in the service of others, usually resulting in a weariness of mind and a sense of hopelessness and futility.

Volunteer guilt generally accompanies a vicious cycle of internalized chastisement and excuse making.  After a relentless internal dialogue rebuking myself, I begin to tell myself how understandable my idleness has been.  That internal dialogue goes something like, “It’s okay, Carly.  You have had a big year.  You finished grad school, started a new job, planned a wedding, bought a house, adopted puppies, planned your best friend’s bridal shower and bachelorette party, and went to two out-of-state weddings.”  But I ultimately find a flaw in this rationale and the cycle starts again.

As I reflect on the past year and make goals for the coming year, I realize that I’m not alone.  Americans are consistently spread too thin in the busy, constantly on-the-go culture in which we live.  Rather than paralyze ourselves with volunteer guilt, we need to have realistic expectations; strive always to do everything in our power and within our emotional, physical, and mental capacity; and find pride in the small wins.

What are the small wins?  I think they will vary for each person and their unique circumstances, it just requires a little creativity and forethought.  But over the past year, my small wins have included the following:

1)   When my husband and I moved into our new house, we set aside some of our gently used furniture and household items (a blender, bookcase, sofa, luggage, etc.) because we knew we would replace those items with wedding gifts and new purchases.  I posted a photo of those items on Facebook and mentioned that I planned to donate them to the Welcome to America Project.  A friend of mine saw the post and called WTAP because her company (another local non-profit) had acquired some gently used furniture they wanted to get rid of.  It ended up being a huge donation of needed items for WTAP.

2)   In lieu of traditional wedding favors, my husband and I opted to donate money to the Welcome to America Project.  We gave our wedding guests bookmarks, designed by my husband’s sister and printed by his mother, telling them about our donation and about WTAP.

3)   I often shared WTAP’s social media posts with my social media network.  Although it doesn’t seem like much, a grassroots organization like WTAP depends on its volunteers to educate the community about its mission and its needs.  Oftentimes, both in-kind and money donations filter in because WTAP’s volunteer base share their passion with others.

4)   I wrote a blog about my experience at WTAP’s signature fundraiser, Prom.   But you could write about a million things: an ethnic recipe you’ve tried, an ethnic restaurant review, an experience volunteering on a delivery, how you budget and/or save money to contribute to volunteer organizations like WTAP, your experience at a WTAP event, etc.

5)   I was, and continue to be, a social media volunteer.  I posted various items throughout the year on Facebook.  This is such a great, non-time consuming way to consistently give back to WTAP.

Now that I feel like life is a little more predictable, my goal for 2014 is to volunteer on a delivery one time per quarter – because there is absolutely no feeling that can compare to seeing a barren apartment transformed into a warm and welcoming home for a refugee family.  There is nothing quite like watching a refugee child light up when presented with a book, stuffed animal, or game.  And nothing feels better than the gratitude, hospitality, and smiles from the refugee families we help.

What are your small wins?  Please share with us!


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