Get Slimed: Thoughts on Volunteering

This week, I got my hands dirty. Really dirty. They were filled with cornstarch, dish soap, food coloring and all sorts of goodies associated with doing a good old-fashioned science experiment. With my new entrepreneurial lifestyle in full swing, I get to do some things that I haven’t been able to do in years…including volunteering.

Now that might sound funny coming from a former CEO, board member and nonprofit guru… but it is my reality.

I have been engaging with volunteers forever; they are the backbone of all nonprofits. One of the highlights of my tenure at Habitat for Humanity of the Lehigh Valley was working with an amazing crew of regular volunteers who were fully engaged with building our homes. As I begin working with Meals on Wheels of Lehigh County, I look forward to meeting a new crew of dedicated servants to our community. But it isn’t the same as getting in there yourself and getting your hands dirty.

Additionally, in past years, I have been a Rotarian. Rotary Clubs are service clubs where communities of people come together to impact their community and connect people globally. An organization like Rotary provides great networking and opportunities to grow as a leader. You are part of something greater than yourself. And organizations like Rotary solve huge challenges, such as the pet project for Rotary, helping to eradicate polio.

Of course, service on nonprofit boards allows you to serve at a very cerebral level. You get to learn the behind the scenes challenges of making a nonprofit work. Having an opportunity to work on strategy and vision is fascinating stuff. You get to deploy your professional expertise in new ways. You sometimes don’t feel the direct impact of what you are doing (such as when you are locked in a board room on a snowy night), but you know you are spending time doing meaningful work with a team of people similarly dedicated and committed to a mission.

So, do you literally need to get your hands dirty?

In March, my husband and I decided we wanted to do some volunteering together. We landed on a great program at Big Brothers Big Sisters Lehigh Valley Afraid of overcommitting (a personality flaw in both of us!), we are part of the Waiting List Club. This requires us to attend a monthly activity with kids who are looking for “bigs”, but have not yet been matched. We get paired up with kids and get fully engaged in projects and experiences. Last night, we were “mad scientists” making silly putty, slime and lava lamps. I loved every minute of it. Having the opportunity to spend two hours of focused time with kids in our community isenergizing and just pure fun.

So, here are a few thoughts on the importance of hands on volunteering. Every board member should be required to get their hands dirty at some point. I love the fact that my husband, who now proudly serves on the Board of Trustees at ArtsQuest, started as a volunteer. After serving in almost every volunteer position at Musikfest for years, when I first met him, he was literally running a “Platz” as a “site supervisor”…walkie talkie in hand. That is how he chose to learn what it took to pull off this incredible event, and he uses that knowledge as an Artsquest Trustee. 

My recommendation is to put “volunteering” into the job descriptions which you utilize in recruiting new board leadership. In my opinion, it is as important as a request for a financial contribution and keeps board members humbly connected to the mission.

And yes, I think that every nonprofit CEO and executive director should experience volunteering for an organization totally different than the ones they lead. Time as nonprofit leaders is limited, spending days and nights and weekends in meetings and paperwork, and it is easy to feel depleted. I think engaging in a “hands on” volunteer experience offers an incredible opportunity for getting recharged. Running a nonprofit can be exhausting. Consider volunteering as a total paradigm shift. Don’t look at it is something to add to your “To Do” list. Consider it as a way to refill your spirit.

I also was reminded of something else last night. Service as a volunteer gives us the opportunity to see and connect with the people in our community. It is easy to operate in a bubble. We tend to hang out with people that look like us and talk like us.  It is easy to develop a “do-gooder” mentality, which is ok, but doesn’t really engage us in experiencing the diversity that is so alive in our neighborhoods.  To ever move the needle on really being inclusive organizations, we need to push past our comfort zones. So go build a house, serve a meal, or make some slime, but mostly, make a difference.