Keeping Your Volunteer Workload in Line

I like to think I’m a nice person. In my world, that means taking on some pro bono work, along with generally being available to chat with people who may not be able to afford to work with me but just need some pointers to get them started in the right direction. I don’t think that I do anything out of the ordinary as far as that sort of thing goes — which means the fact that I struggle with keeping the amount of time I spend on such work under control is probably pretty normal.

My biggest problem is that, while I want to help people, I also like eating. I can’t spend every hour of my working day on projects or conversations that won’t pay the bills. Bringing that volunteer workload in line with what I can reasonably afford to spend on projects that won’t pay is a constant struggle.

Choosing Who to Help

Who am I to say that the animal shelter that asked for me to help them set up a newsletter is more or less deserving than the beginning freelance writer who needs a couple of ideas on marketing so that she can feed her family? I don’t know about you, but I think that’s a sucky decision to have to make. Generally, I try to give priority for pro bono work to causes I personally care about. Personally, I care more about helping local organizations. From there, it’s a matter of first come, first serve.

I’ve put a couple of hours here and there in my work calendar that are meant to be used on pro bono work. When those are filled up, that’s the end of my availability. It’s hard, but I can’t afford to do things any other way.

Little Questions Add Up

I’d like to be able to claim that I personally respond to every email that lands in my inbox. Even if we take out the spam and newsletters that make up a healthy portion of my email, it’s still not a claim I can make. If an email comes in from someone I’ve never heard from before, who isn’t a prospective client or long-lost cousin, it goes at the bottom of my list to respond to. Most weeks, that means that I won’t respond to an email immediately but the odds are good that I’ll get to it after a couple of days — but when I get busy, it may be weeks before I can get to it. If that’s the case, I might get things together enough to send some sort of form response, or (and I hate to admit this) I don’t even touch it.

I’ve gotten worse about that sort of thing, but I’ve also found better ways to cope lately. I’ve got some form responses that my virtual assistant can send out. I’ve built time into my writing for this blog and other projects to take questions that I may not be able to answer any other way. I try hard, in part because I really do want to be a nice person.

San Jose Library


  1. Ali Hale   •  

    I like your method of setting aside particular hours. I take on pro bono work too (mostly church/charity related) and, like you, I always want to be able to help out newer writers.

    It’s particularly tough when I meet people in person; I always want to say “send me your writing! Let me help you! Free!” — but of course, that isn’t ultimately sustainable.

    On the plus side, my pro bono work has resulted in great non-monetary rewards: Sid Savara (who I wrote a few guest post for, a while back) seems to have told everyone at BlogWorld that I’m a great writer… Plus, I get great testimonials, and ultimately, just get a kick out of being able to help people and make their day a bit brighter.

  2. kristin   •  

    Hi Thursday;
    This is a shameless endorsement for a volunteer resource; I had an awesome experience volunteering (first as a project manager, then as a designer) through the Taproot Foundation. My “client” was Interfaith Council for the Homeless, in Chicago, IL. (Now named Facing Forward, I think the best benefits were finding/helping an outstanding organization I’d otherwise never had heard of, great connections with my team from all different companies (actually the highest caliber of people I’d ever worked with), and a structured project, so I could pretty much count on .5 to 5 hours max per week for the duration of the project. Taproot has projects in most major U.S. cities, and they have a grant process open to any NFP altruistic organization.

    I have volunteered my professional skills before, independently, and found that it was hard to manage the expectations of how much time I had to give (that NFP/volunteer trap of “I’m not paying you, so I’m not necessarily going to treat you professionally”*). The structured nature of the Taproot grant really worked for me. I’ve told many people I learned more from my teammates on those two grants than I had in the last 5 years of my career.

    (*referring to: the probono client completely missing deadlines/skipping conference calls/not responding to requests for information/endless rounds of revisions/no idea of needs/etc.)

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