Volunteer Responsibility Amnesty Day
December 20, 2021 11:11 PM   Subscribe

Volunteer Responsibility Amnesty Day is December 21. "[It] is about checking with yourself, and ending the commitments you need to end – maybe by taking a break, or by rotating it on to someone else, or by sunsetting a project." [via mefi projects]

Letting go of volunteer responsibilities previously.
posted by sibilatorix (16 comments total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
My partner just completed his last day of a multi-year volunteer commitment today (it’s the 21st here), so this is so timely. He was truly torn about the decision: volunteering for this organisation gave him much-needed support and a sense of purpose and contribution at a time when he had neither. I believe it saved his life. But it was time to go and focus on different commitments.

I’m going to share this with him, it’s a lovely recognition of both the contribution and the milestone of completing it.
posted by third word on a random page at 1:17 AM on December 21, 2021 [5 favorites]

I have been seeing this idea get attention, it is clearly resonating with people. I still don't quite have the courage to 'make a clean break' with a 15+ year project, maybe next solstice.
posted by the antecedent of that pronoun at 6:17 AM on December 21, 2021 [1 favorite]

This would mean walking away and letting a few things die, in my community. And key people have been ageing out or dying (this year: 2 deaths, 2 relocations), so for me this thread churns up all the dark feelings I experienced last time we discussed the topic.

Volunteerism has been on the decline for generations, in Canada. I'm aware of what has contributed to decline, but it's still disheartening.
posted by elkevelvet at 7:42 AM on December 21, 2021 [2 favorites]

Volunteerism has been on the decline for generations, in Canada. I'm aware of what has contributed to decline, but it's still disheartening.

I'm of two minds on the decline of volunteerism. On one hand, it has meant that programs struggle with manpower just as they're needed. But on the other hand, I think that there's also been some reflection on how volunteerism has allowed groups to dodge the point that what they are doing is work and needs to be treated as such - including paying a wage for it.
posted by NoxAeternum at 7:52 AM on December 21, 2021 [10 favorites]

My dad desperately needs this. He’s been overextended for ages. Volunteering is a tricky and difficult kind of work. As it’s outside the capital system, it’s easy to devalue. When longtime volunteers need to step back or step down, there often isn’t institutional support to keep their work going — with training, operations manuals, or even just replacement volunteers — the way there tends to be with paid work. And because volunteers tend to be more emotionally committed to their projects/work, the potential loss can feel existential. Yet we need to care for ourselves first if we are to care for anything else effectively. I feel for him — and for all volunteers in this position.
posted by heyitsgogi at 7:59 AM on December 21, 2021 [5 favorites]

I think that there's also been some reflection on how volunteerism has allowed groups to dodge the point that what they are doing is work and needs to be treated as such - including paying a wage for it.

My perspective of volunteerism is shaped by growing up in rural communities where people either got together to solve problems, or the problems persisted. We're talking "how will we do our banking" and "how and when will telephone service happen here" questions. There will always be a question of "what ought to be" and believe me, when I helped out at the local foodbank I struggled to make sense of what we were doing at times. I think volunteerism exists in a way organized labour exists: when we see it diminish and entirely disappear, we see healthy communities and democracy disappear. Nothing says wealth and stability than a situation where people can afford to lend their time, energy, and talent to something that improves their life and the lives of others.

I better leave this for a while and just read others' thoughts, I just can't quiet my mind on this topic.
posted by elkevelvet at 8:26 AM on December 21, 2021 [9 favorites]

When I created this occasion, I wanted to counterbalance a dynamic I see a lot: people with a strong sense of responsibility feel a lot of externally- and internally-generated pressure to say yes to new volunteer commitments, but are far less frequently reminded to reflect on our existing workload and pause, rotate, or end our existing commitments. Enthusiastic creators and helpers can mean to say “that should exist”/”I could do that” and accidentally say “I want to do that” in a moment of excitement, or say yes to new commitments without thinking about our other existing commitments.

For people like this, having a regular non-shamey reminder to reflect can be helpful, as can having a bit of a script for how to talk about it without groveling. I was happy to see someone use the format as a way to ask for help: "I’ve picked up quite a lot of community responsibilities over the past couple of decades, and would like to pick up some new ones, but need to put some existing ones down first." And today I saw an announcement by an organizer of a basically-defunct group saying essentially "I am finally admitting that this is over; I'm closing the accounts and here are the templates/resources in case they're helpful for similar groups".

In the previous thread, Lingen was arguing that it's a positive good to pause or rotate a responsibility -- even temporarily -- to encourage institutional resilience, and I do think that's true. In contrast, or maybe in a complementary way, Volunteer Responsibility Amnesty Day is definitely more focused on an individual person's workload and exhaustion. Some people take an occasion like this to reflect and say: I'm fine, this is sustainable, and I'm happy with my current obligations. elkevelvet, it sounds like this is your situation, and I'm glad!

I also appreciated Silvery Fish's example of job-sharing to spread out the work and the wisdom. I'd love to hear others' examples of how you creatively paused, rotated, slowed, shared, or otherwise modified your volunteer work to make it more sustainable without entirely quitting a role or sunsetting a project.
posted by brainwane at 8:40 AM on December 21, 2021 [13 favorites]

Boy oh boy, this resonates. Seeing people doing necessary things, it activates me. I love being a part of something that I want to see happen or keep happening or stay in good shape. I have had some great times with good folks. I have also overpromised or picked up what no one else would at the time, and things turned out less well somewhere. I have also found myself involved in situations where extraction was difficult. Sometimes that was my feeling of responsibility or even ego, other times pressure that could be unreasonable.

There were efforts where I learned I was not wanted or best-fit. Those can be good experiences too.

I learned most of all that the people not the subject are most important for me. I don’t have to enjoy the effort, that’s not usually a requirement, but I do need to enjoy some interaction.

The most successful efforts I have been part of are temporary with a clear goal, or ongoing but with rotation baked right in. (Edit: cheers to @brainwane for covering that). I can only hold a position for a given time, then it must be rotated. This gets the whole team thinking of fresh recruits for the leadership and outside of that we can come and go with no abandonment issues.

That brings me to the other side of the coin - getting people interested and involved. Again I find it easier when I can present a healthy org with none of that trapdoor feeling.

All in all - best wishes to volunteers who move earth or move people, who carry clipboards or fire hoses or meal trays, who write letters or write checks, and all the other things that become necessary these days.
posted by drowsy at 11:13 AM on December 21, 2021

I'm so glad for this idea. Today it helped me find a way to get out from under part of a project, while clarifying what kind of person would be better suited to carry that load.
posted by joeyh at 11:43 AM on December 21, 2021 [3 favorites]

This is such an important idea, so thoughtfully and respectfully presented. I am immensely grateful to you, brainwane, for sitting with your observations and creating something healing out of them.

As someone who has volunteered in a lot of ways, and whose immediate reaction to any problem in the world, tiny or global, is "How can I fix this? Even if no one else will do anything?", I am tremendously grateful for the reminder that it's easy to go overboard, and saying yes to something once does not have to mean a lifetime commitment.

I think the question "What would X look like if it were healthy?" is an absolutely essential question, and one I would like to bring to all my endeavors.

This is, fundamentally, a kind of Omelas question: given that volunteering often requires or encourages more from volunteers than is healthy, to what extent will we require sacrifice from a small group of people in order to have the things we need (food banks, vaccinations, fire departments, classroom aides) and the things we want (museums, community theater, film festivals, community gardens)?

I think volunteering can be immensely rewarding, and I am truly grateful to the volunteers who have guided me on free city walking tours, who distribute food with food banks, who help with vaccination drives in underserved neighborhoods. And at the same time, along with NoxAeternum, I am concerned about the extensive reliance on unpaid labor, and I wonder what might happen if more volunteers made time to re-value the worth of their work. When I think about the world I'd like to live in, I see a world in which nearly everyone volunteers, some how, for something, and yet there's an expectation that most people will donate only a smallish number of hours a month, and a path - with funding and training and supportive organizational leadership - for volunteers to transition to part-time PAID contributions if that's what they want.

The idea of Volunteer Responsibility Amnesty Day is important, and nourishing, and beautiful in the ways it honors the full lives of all those who have chosen to give of themselves to make the world a better place. Thank you so much for creating it, and sharing it with the world, brainwane; and sibilatorix, thank you for bringing it over here from Projects.
posted by kristi at 12:54 PM on December 21, 2021 [5 favorites]

This is such an overdue idea.
I have always disliked the idea of volunteer work, *especially* as performed by women, who are underpaid for the regular work they do. They give away so much of themselves, there’s nothing left for THEM, but somehow that’s celebrated in this society.
I have volunteered twice in my life, both for long stints on community theatre boards. Never again, in any shape or form.
In short:
Men: volunteer to your hearts’ content!
Women: walk away and stay away, for the sake of your mental health.
posted by BostonTerrier at 12:59 PM on December 21, 2021 [3 favorites]

I see what you describe, BostonTerrier, but for me it's not the whole and definitive picture. In my experience women are carrying a greater part of the volunteer burden, and this runs parallel to the work they do in paid employment situations and in the household. Some of the women seem to welcome it, I can think of two women who simply pursue a type of leadership role and that's the only way they'd have it. I will be seeing a third (retired) woman tonight who is very active in a church and the local Rotary Club, and she is very good at boundaries.

Anyone, man or woman, who has been volunteering for a period of years is most likely over-extended. There is a personality type, from my non-scientific and relatively unresearched view. I do encounter people who seem to know their limits and I'm trying to learn from that.
posted by elkevelvet at 3:42 PM on December 21, 2021

My worst volunteer gig was the one I was given solely because I was reliable and felt responsible for keeping things running. (Everyone else had reasons why they couldn't ever be the reliable one, best that I keep doing it despite my obvious faults.) I eventually had to quit the group entirely to get out of it. (I tried going back as an attendee a few months later, and the first thing anyone said was, "oh good, you can pick it up again!") I made it a birthday present to myself.

I've gotten better at picking volunteer projects for myself since. Normalizing the idea that volunteers aren't stuck forever is a great thing.
posted by mersen at 7:58 PM on December 21, 2021 [2 favorites]

I'm down to two volunteering commitments, one of which I do not want to let go of because my friends are there (and I add value and think the thing we are doing is worthwhile) and one I cannot let go of without risk the ending of the work, including making three people redundant. But it is helpful to reflect that unless I spontaneously develop more energy and enthusiasm I cannot take on anything else.
posted by plonkee at 1:45 AM on December 22, 2021 [1 favorite]

It's been interesting to read through these answers. I've been working on an all- volunteer project for the past year (starting a tool library) and its really hard to figure out how to get people meaningfully involved without giving them too much to do so that they feel overwhelmed (or just drop some of the things).

Especially as the only woman in the core group, for now, I'm also determined to not to end up being the 'default one who picks up everything and keeps the project going' but it's hard to not jump into that role because I have become so invested in the success of it.
posted by geegollygosh at 5:25 AM on December 22, 2021 [1 favorite]

And may I offer a song for the Volunteer Responsibility Amnesty Day playlist?

Labouring and Resting, by Karine Polwart (with Pippa Murphy), is a lovely ode and observation on the dance of the working together we do in life (well, and the working together that geese do, and mothers, and) :

"stepping up
falling back
and resting"

It reminds me of a lot of things, but today it reminded me of this.
posted by kristi at 6:04 PM on December 26, 2021

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