Cindy Krischer Goodman

Balancing Act: Ask questions before you volunteer

Attorney Maria Torres remembers the day when her desire to volunteer took a disconcerting turn. She needed to finish up a legal brief and rush to a business lunch, and the programming committee chair for her volunteer organization was dragging out the morning call longer than was needed. “I started resenting my volunteer position taking so much of my time.”

Around the country, many altruistic and frustrated volunteers like Torres are rethinking the well intentioned commitments that have zapped their enthusiasm and hijacked their free time. What may have started out as passion for a cause or a means to rub elbows has overwhelmed their schedules and led to burnout.

“We see the signs but sometimes we don’t always respond the way we should, with self preservation,” says Aimee Cohen, Career Coach and Author of Woman UP! Overcome the 7 Deadly Sins that Sabotage Your Success. “You should be constantly re-evaluating whether your extracurriculars are serving you in the best possible way.”

With fall’s arrival, the call for volunteers heats up, bringing opportunity to devote time to new causes and pull back from current positions that no longer hold interest. Before signing on to be president of the chamber or chair of a fundraising event, note this: Although 62 million people volunteered last year, the volunteer rate in 2013 was the lowest it has been in a decade, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Fewer volunteers and fewer paid staff members typically result in a higher demand on those who do step up.

Here are a few tips to ensure your volunteer duties match up with the rest of your life.

• A sk questions before you sign on. Some companies urge their professionals to get involved in the community and position themselves as leaders. The challenge comes when meetings or events regularly conflict with work demands.

Miami Banker Adriana Sanchez, a vice president at Goldman, Sachs & Co. in Miami, found herself taxed by a volunteer board position that took time out of her work day. “I had to organize my schedule based on what the organization had set up, which became overwhelming with my full time job.” When her board term ended, Sanchez asked to roll off, and she used the next year to rethink her strategy.

Now, she leads the giving committee of the women’s network at her investment banking firm, which works closely with two local nonprofits that benefit women and children. She is able to schedule school supply drives or fundraisers on weekends. “We get our kids involved and we are able to adopt a schedule that’s more manageable for us.”

• Compare the time commitment with your free time. Many people are happy to volunteer un-coerced, especially when they recognize the worthiness of the cause or have a personal connection. But a time-consuming volunteer role can affect work performance and family life and may require shedding other commitments.

Maria Figueroa Byrd, a mother of twin 11-year-old girls and co-owner of Byrd Martinez, a Miami CPA firm, became so passionate about the Junio League’s charitable work that she agreed to take over as president of the Miami chapter. Shortly after, she resigned from her church’s finance committee.“I knew I could only focus on so many things at a time or business would suffer,” Byrd says.

Such dilemmas aren’t unusual. After his term ended, one local chamber chairman admitted to me that his work productivity had significantly dipped. He said: “I’m thankful it was only a one year commitment.”

• Assess the value of a volunteer role. For some, the value in volunteering might be fulfillment from raising money to find a cure for a disease, making business connections, positioning your small business as community minded or showing your child you support his school. Byrd believes the value of her Junior League role will be the new leadership skills she will gain and the friendships she will make. Yet, with only two part-time paid staff members, Byrd realizes she faces a challenge convincing others of the value of giving time. “We are looking at how to restructure the organization differently to accommodate work schedules and allow women to contribute but not get burned out.”

• Recognize when to push back. Experts caution that part of volunteer burnout stems from the fact that in most organizations, a small number of volunteers shoulder the vast majority of the work. Cohen, the coach, argues it is possible for volunteers to scale back a position that snowballs into hours spent on phone calls, emails, meetings and weekend events.

“This is where you need to advocate for yourself,” she says. “No one will say ‘I see your work/life balance is suffering, let me redefine to the role to make it easier.’ The onus is on the individual to set realistic boundaries.”

• Regularly re-evaluate your commitments. After several decades of involvement with multiple civic, medical and arts organizations, Chip Withers, president of Withers Transportation Systems in Doral, has narrowed his volunteer participation to chairman of the Coral Gables Museum and vice chairman of the COPD Foundation and the Alpha One Project, philanthropy platforms for medical research.

When you volunteer, you become a magnet for requests, he notes. Over time, the opportunities open at higher levels, requiring the need to ease out of former positions. “I always offer a successor,” he says.

Withers found that having a mentor within the organization to keep him interested and involved was key to having a good experience. “Volunteers quit and will say they say don’t have time anymore. They really are saying they are not as interested.”

Often, volunteers don't find a clear path to fulfillment on their first try. Personalities, positions and temperament can turn into deterrents.

After two years volunteering with fundraisers on the local level, Susan Postal of Aventura found a new position at JAFCO’s (Jewish Adoption and Family Care Options) administrative offices, for which she was better suited. “It didn't matter if I didn't achieve what I wanted the first time. I kept trying,” she says. “Sometimes you have to dig deeper into what an organization has to offer.”