Lessons Learned Volunteering

By Cynthia Simmons

I learned important lessons that have stood me in good stead since years ago when I did my first big volunteer project. I worked very hard and had good results to show for my efforts, but the public fame went to someone else. I had a co-chair and partner, who was equally and also ignored.

The first lesson I learned is –Whenever I volunteer, I need to know why I am doing it. I set my own goals. Usually my goals are to learn how to do something new and to support a cause I believe in. As time passes, I check in with myself to judge whether I think my efforts will be fruitful.

Here’s my story:

I had just finished night school classes for my BA and MA degrees and was searching around for my career path. I still needed to finish some research papers and to take my oral exam for my master’s. I spent a couple of months writing papers and studying.

As a treat for myself, I signed up for a pottery class at the local art center. That decision opened up new doors for me. I started hanging out with some artists, got myself a sketchbook, and some time later found myself co-chairing an arts festival.

Over a spring and summer I spent many, many hours working on the production of the arts festival. The event was set for the second weekend in August.

The beginning point was a logo. My instincts told me to look at the portfolio of a textile designer because most of the visual artists I was meeting at the art center created drawings, paintings, clay pots, or sculpture of some sort. A textile designer “felt” right. After spending an hour and a half reviewing her portfolio, there it was–a textile design that totally made sense as a logo for the event–a man and a woman dancing beneath a tree.

Design by Almuth Palinkas

© Almuth Palinkas

The next step was to recruit artists. We advertised our event and stated that artists needed to provide three slides by the submission deadline. We developed and printed an artist recruitment poster and a prospectus. During the summer, my co-chair and I visited local art fairs to informally jury and invite artists to show at our festival. The goal was a fine arts festival rather than a craft festival.

And of course, before the artist recruitment publicity was finished, we needed to begin to publicize our festival to the general public. That meant more press releases, and another poster.

As the event drew near there were long lists of small details to consider. We had about a hundred artists exhibiting, and at least twenty volunteers to run the festival. The art center shared the grounds with a music school; the music school scheduled on-going concerts for the Saturday and Sunday. The building was being restored; another group of volunteers was trained to give tours of the house.

The weekend of our festival, the weather was great. We drew a good crowd. The artists were happy. I was so very proud.

A couple of days afterward, our town newspaper had a full-page article on our festival with photos and thank you’s to…

You know what happened. The volunteers who ran the event existed as a faceless, nameless crowd.  Only the three paid staffers were named as having organized the festival.  And the two official co-chairs were the town mayor and the biggest donor.

(Two paid staffers were very new at working with volunteers and didn’t think to give the reporter volunteer names. Hopefully those staffers grew and learned their own lessons.)

Fortunately, on the Festival Program we had our titles and were recognized.

So here are the lessons I learned:

Know that when you do good work that you believe in, sometimes that is your only reward. If you seek to add professional credentials or projects to your resume, make that clear when you start to volunteer.

Know that people like to be recognized and thanked. Since that experience of being ignored, I have always tried, both publicly and privately, to acknowledge any individual contributions to a group effort and to say “Thank you!” unmistakably, loud and clear!

Cynthia Simmons has a background in publishing and publications.

© 2014 Blog to Work/Blogging your way to a job. All rights reserved

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