Sunday, August 12, 2012

What To Do When "Life Happens"

In 2010, I had to step down from one of my favorite volunteer roles because of a major addition to my schedule known then as "Peanut" - life happens! (Photo courtesy of CPCammack Photography)
Many of us have been there.  Armed with the best of intentions, you take on a volunteer role in order to make a positive impact on your community.  You find a way to integrate this new use of your time and talent with the other demands weighing on you.  Then one day, something happens.  Maybe it's a change in your personal life, a new role at work, or the planets aligning against your favor.  In short, it's what I call "life happens"...because it does.

Whatever the cause, you find your mind reeling and stress mounting trying to figure out how you are going to "do it all" - something's got to give.  Naturally, you evaluate what can change in order to alleviate the situation, and the fact that your volunteer role - is well, voluntary - usually makes it the first on the chopping block.  

Here's what I tell my volunteers: I know that life happens.  When it does, just be honest about what commitments you can keep - and communicate those changes.  
(evaluate and communicate)

I often see one of two things occur "when life happens" -- 

1.  A volunteer suddenly stops replying to emails and phone calls and doesn't attend meetings.  This is usually an attempt to leave the volunteer role without having to feel like a quitter.  One may even think this is a graceful exit.  It's not!  Instead, fellow volunteers and staff spend countless hours trying to channel their detective skills; all the while, wondering if something horrible has happened.  Again, this is not a graceful exit.  In fact, it eventually just goes from annoying to downright rude.  *However, if you're looking to be sure no one ever wants volunteer with you again, this is an excellent strategy! 

2.  A volunteer shows up at a meeting and ends up in the fetal position in the corner before it's over.  Why?!  I call this one "martyr syndrome" - when the individual knows the volunteer role is too much given their circumstances, but doesn't want to "let anyone down."  The volunteer is trying to keep a commitment that is no longer realistic.  And quite frankly, this person is no longer effective or useful to the team.  

Here's my advice to stressed-out volunteers everywhere: Resist the urge to go radio silent or to become a shape shifter trying to make it all work!  Take a breath, and communicate your situation to the committee leaders and/or volunteer manager.  This doesn't make you a "quitter", but it does make you someone who has wisely evaluated your capacity to serve.  

In fact, sometimes taking a personal time-out is best for everyone involved.  Your team will appreciate the opportunity to bring in someone new quickly to keep the project on task.  Smart volunteer managers will encourage you to do what's best for your situation, thank you for your honesty and candor, and welcome you back with open arms when the timing is right.