Idealism and Expectations: The Pragmatic Volunteer

canstockphoto5319068Civic duty and volunteerism were concepts I embraced growing up. I sang at nursing homes when I was little, picked up litter, “adopted” grandparents in hospice care and collected canned goods. I was a Girl Scout, a Pathfinder, an earner of praise for being so good and so earnest. When I was 12, I even had tea with the state governor’s wife because of my do-gooding ways.

Lest you nominate me for sainthood, I lived a secret life inside. The people I helped weren’t always nice or clean or even grateful. I didn’t seem to be changing the world in the ways I had imagined. In my mind, I was a rescuer, a saver, a changer. I was able to raise my sense of personal value this way. It was all about me and when it didn’t proceed in the grandiose way I had envisioned, I became a little bitter.

The irony in failing to comprehend why people weren’t grateful was that I had been the recipient of charity as a child and I hated it. I hated being so poor that we couldn’t pay for food. I hated it that the girls at school would make fun of my weird hand-me-down shoes. I hated the looks of pity when we had to ask for a place to stay because of an alcoholic rage at home. I was afraid we’d be found out during those times when we didn’t have water or electricity or a flush toilet.

Many years ago, I helped during the holidays at a local shelter for abused women and children. I embraced this wholeheartedly, filled with wondrous plans to make the shelter a warm and welcoming place. These were my people – these people were trying to escape a life I’d left behind as a child.

We cooked a holiday dinner and helped sort presents for the kids. I did some cleaning in the dilapidated kitchen. I overheard conversations. Six kids later and still engaged in a soap opera with him. Bent on getting her next fix. Insisting that she didn’t need to do no chores. Smoking with a kid on her hip. I was young and judgmental – these were not my people.

I didn’t last long there. I also did short stints at nursing homes, depressed by the death of every adopted resident, overwhelmed by institutional smells, trying to convince myself that what I was doing mattered, but feeling like it really didn’t.

So often I read about the amazingly difficult work people are doing under miserable conditions with challenging populations. Surely their idealism was shed after two weeks with no shower or shoveling gravelly hard ditches for drainage or when they were cursed at for limiting amounts of food distribution. Some of these volunteers will do this kind of work for their entire lives – in the trenches, with little external reward.

Oh, but self-righteous, poor me. I was the worst kind of volunteer. I had expectations that gratitude would be my reward. That I would be seen as someone of value and import because I was doing good.

Years later, I’ve been through all the permutations of volunteerism, arriving at a milquetoast, middle class version. Most recently, I took a leadership role in my daughter’s school parent teacher organization. It’s a large school with a majority reduced lunch population. Needs are high for supplies and programs and volunteers. I thought, until this week, that I’d put aside idealism and that wretched volunteer of my younger years.

I’ve written letters to protest a school program change, tried to recruit other volunteers, attempted to connect with other organization leaders, addressed a school gymnasium full of kids and teachers, and done fundraising. I felt strong and decisive and filled with self-righteous zeal (the kind that I generally mock). I spent most of the week outside of my comfort zone.

The response has been a lot of silence, some bureaucratic mumblings and tepid conciliation. I felt defeated and deflated and discouraged. I had expectations that I wasn’t acknowledging and so disappointment caught me off guard. I was that volunteer again – seething with anger, swearing that I’ll never volunteer to do this or that again.

My grownup self has tempered my reaction. There is satisfaction to be found in being the kind of the person I want to be – someone who is willing to jump in, have uncomfortable conversations, take risks and recognize that not everything is going to turn out rainbows and puppies. On occasion, I just have to deal with that other person – the one who wants fulfillment and reward and most definitely, tangible results.

I still believe with all my heart that an individual can make a difference. It would be arrogant to believe that I can change the plight of humans with my small actions. But with all the need in the world and the fortunate life I live now, it would be unforgivable if I didn’t even try.

40 thoughts on “Idealism and Expectations: The Pragmatic Volunteer

  1. Having worked at an inpatient psychiatric hospital, I can relate to what you say about getting burnt out and bitter when your efforts aren’t appreciated. I had to reach a point where I placed the value of my actions on the action itself and didn’t try to evaluate the outcome because, as with anything, you don’t really know what chain reaction you may have caused or impact you left.

    You seem a bit hard on yourself but I do appreciate the honesty of the post.


    1. I think you are exactly right about the value being on the action itself and not the outcome. I do tend to be hard on myself, but these days, it’s without apology – at some point, I’ve just realized it’s part of my operating system!


  2. Great post Michelle. I think that we seldom really know or get to see the fruits of our actions. Things may change just so slightly, someone might be a tad happier at the end of the day, without us ever hearing about it. I believe like you, that there is a value of being the kind of person you aspire to be, live out our values w/o the need for gratification. But it’s not an easy path.


    1. Thank you. I really like that phrase “live out our values”. That is the bigger challenge in a world that sometimes doesn’t promote the same values. It’s really along the lines of the oft-quoted “be the change” or “lead by example” or “Actions speak louder than words”(I think the writer in me just cringed at that one). It is not, as you point out, always an easy path. I think about the alternative of doing nothing and that seems less appealing.


  3. I am looking at this from a slightly different perspective. My daughter is offering herself as a volunteer at various, local care homes for the elderly – and struggling to be accepted. I am thinking, don’t they want young, eager volunteers? I am miffed that they don’t snap up a person who wants to help her community; I am miffed at their rejection of my beloved daughter. We who have, are conditioned to think that we should be giving back; our motives for doing so vary and are not always praiseworthy. Your thoughts as a recipient in your younger years should be noted by those who organise such things. I am impressed that you continue to try.


    1. This is one of the problems I have experienced when trying to volunteer as well – a decided lack of responsiveness or communication when volunteering. Now that I’m heading up an organization, we’ve worked hard to respond quickly, send out thank you notes after the event and I try to get around to personally meet and thank our volunteers during events. It takes a great deal of effort to be efficient and mindful of the sacrifice of others, especially with nonprofits where resources are slim. I hope your daughter finds a home for her altruistic efforts.


  4. It’s hard to accept that, even when you do your best, you can’t erase poverty, or hate, or misery in the world. It really is. I’ve been there, tried my hardest, burned out. Then I go back again after a break, wiser for a while but then I forget again.

    But it’s OK. Every drop helps.


    1. It is very easy to get burned out. I have to go through this thought process on a regular basis, in order to remind myself that doing nothing is not better. I’m always a little wary of do-gooders that plow ahead single-mindedly, without ever questioning their motives or effectiveness. Sometimes even a small gesture can make a difference in a person’s day, so I have to believe that the butterfly effect is positive.


  5. I like your post very much because I was like you. I used to volunteer because I was enjoying the other fellow volunteers. My students were a second choice for me but today I admit it was wrong, I wish I can go back again and do good. 😦


    1. Thank you. I think the point could be made that regardless of intent, that your actions still served the purpose of helping others. Being around other volunteers really makes the work more enjoyable and there’s nothing wrong with embracing that. Says the pot to the kettle…


  6. Brava to you, Michelle, for jumping as a PTO leader. I volunteer at my kids’ school, but mostly in their class. Sometimes, I’ve taught lessons and they ended quickly and I was sad I didn’t get to share the last moments when I thought we could make that “this was a great lesson exchange!” Ha ha. No one cares!! I think a lot of people who need the help don’t really want to have to be in the position they’re in, so maybe don’t seem appreciative. You are doing, and have done, a wonderful thing with your volunteering. I feel like I should do more! You’ve inspired me.


    1. I’m learning all about karma this year – for all those times I grumbled about attending meetings or doing this or that. Now I’m on the flip side of the coin, trying to get people to show up, recruiting volunteers, having to beg for donations and doing the fundraising thing. It’s a very good lesson for me.
      And I think you’re right – nobody wants to be in the position of needing help. It perhaps is expecting too much to want people who are going through tough times to be gracious about it as well. Even while I smiled and thanked the helpful as a kid, I burned with embarrassment and eventually resentment.
      I hope, in the very least, that if I’m there and I’m helping, the message to those who need it can be: “You have value. You are not forgotten or invisible.” Even if my actions do very little in the scheme of things, I have to believe that message is worth delivering over and over.


  7. We may never know the fruits of our labors, but I like to think that at some point, what we do makes a difference and encourages at least one person to help someone else. Sometimes that’s all we can hope for.


  8. Yes I agree with Michelle because it can be hard to do when you may not feel like doing it. It also serves you well to question your own motives and to be able to reconcile these ideas and feelings.
    However you are not totally wrong in your ‘judgements’ and at the same time you WILL touch someone else.
    I am saying this as I sleep in my car night after night for four months. What I have encountered may have made me feel jaded. At the same time I have been doing some charities as I can and they are gratifying, if not for any other reason as to get me out of my car.
    There is another bonus and it is that my cat is with me. I have her 7 years and I see how she is thrilled to see and will even sleep on me. When she looks at me with her pensive look, I know it is meant and that it makes me feel good.

    Never let anyone say a pet doesn’t matter. and that they do not feel emotions. People who say that never really needed that kind of affirmation.

    The time in the car is probably coming to an end, I reached to a Senator and because I am a veteran, he helped me expedite my claim for SSDI. I guess in the long run we can complain about our feelings and feeling justified in them, as long as we cannot find the silver linings that are there.

    So I really feel you and and can appreciate the demoralization and degradation of my youth, to a profound sadness that had almost caused me to give up.
    My silver lining weighs about 11 lbs but she is worth her weight in gold, as are you contributions to the ones you help.



    1. So sorry to hear about your predicament, Larry and I hope that you find resolution soon. And I’m very glad you have your cat. Pets do make a difference – they help us stay in touch with our better human side. Thanks for taking the time to read and respond. Again, best wishes on finding a more comfortable place for both you and your furry companion to stay. Take care.


      1. Thank you for your wishes. I see my PCP today and I am sure she will be glad to hear of my recent progress made to finding a home. My kitty never lets me down.. and like a small child I indulge her need for love and attention.


  9. I know what you mean about expectations. They are killers. I worked at a Salvation Army for two years. I didn’t think I needed thanks but at the end I found myself burnt out because people didn’t change according to my expectations. All of this taught me that the truth of the matter is what the Buddhist teach. Let go of the ego and be generous. Only by letting go and letting others be who they are can we truly be who we are. Keep up the good work. And good blog you have here.


    1. I really like the Buddhist concepts of letting go of ego and perhaps, in the case of expectations, not being attached to outcomes. Those are tough ideas to practice, as I have to constantly remind myself. I have gotten better about my expectations of others – it’s simply a standing rule that you cannot change others, only how you react to and view them. Sometimes I get that right, sometimes I forget and feel let down. Practice, practice. Thanks for your kind words and encouragement!


  10. One of my favourite quotes: “I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; and because I can do something I will not refuse to do anything I can do”. Helen Keller


  11. A most thought-provoking post and comments thread. Helped me recognize some of the thoughts that have bothered me. I’ve often been dejected because not a word of gratitude or recognition is given for good work, whether it is on the job or as a volunteer. Too often participants in organizations and recipients of assistance just seem to take everything — good or bad — for granted. I make it a habit to thank people who organize or volunteer because I know they get so little positive feedback.

    It’s amazing how often in life, things don’t turn out like we think they should. Hopes and expectations dashed. But I think if we completely suppress expectations, we can become passive. We need a little bit of a goal, but I guess it’s best to keep our goals moderate.

    It’s amazing how, in a world where appeals for volunteers seem to be everywhere, a person offering to volunteer is ignored. Sometimes volunteer organizations can seem like an exclusive clique, and you have to almost prove your dedication by forcing yourself in. Sometimes, volunteer agencies are so overwhelmed, or so thin on administrative procedures and leadership, that they seem incapable of responding. In some cases, a determined volunteer simply needs to take initiative, even assume a leadership role and become a catalyst. But you need a tough enough skin to realize that your efforts will sometimes fall on infertile ground.


    1. I keep trying to pull myself back from having expectations of others and of outcomes and focus on the expectations I should have of myself to be a decent human being. It’s hard not to fall into the trap of wanting external things or people to change.

      I think you’re right in that sometimes organizations are too overwhelmed to coordinate and thank volunteers effectively. Maybe the initiative that needs to be taken is jumping in to help with volunteer management. But you’re right – sometimes volunteers have to take initiative and pitch in where they see the need.


  12. I can relate to this so much. I think there’s a part of all of us that craves gratitude and fulfillment from activities we do through volunteering. In the end, the fact that you do it is amazing and something a lot of people only talk about doing. Great post, as always!


    1. Thanks, Caitlin. I’m in the thick of a fundraiser and working with volunteers and despite my resolution to not have expectations, it is really enjoyable to see our small successes along the way. I think I’ll be taking a very long nap when it’s all over, though!


  13. It’s strange when you read other peoples experiences and feelings that they mirror your own, but it’s also kind of comforting. I have volunteered for various organisations over the last 10 years or so. I have also been angry many times at the lack of appreciations, both from the organisations and the clients. In more recent years I’ve had to ask myself who I’m doing it for, and, if it’s for them then I should need no thanks, but if it’s for me then that’s not really the point. “We” now have an introductory meeting with the volunteers of the the charity I do most work for. This includes quite a large section on “why are you here” and “what do you expect to get out of it”. Because, like a lot of things in life, you probably won’t get the recognition you think you deserve. If that wasn’t the case my blog would have 10,000 followers 😉


    1. That’s a tough question to throw out to volunteers (What do you expect to get out of it?) and quite psychological in nature. It would be interesting to see all those people sitting like deer in headlights when asked!

      Like most things, I try to remind myself that regardless of what someone else says or does, I am responsible for my reaction and my perspective. I’m learning to not need overt gratitude, but I still get extremely disgruntled about inefficient use of my time – showing up with 50 other people standing around or showing up and no one knows what I’m supposed to do. This is perhaps the reason I took on a leadership role – if my time is wasted, it’s my own damned fault!

      I laughed about the ‘not getting the recognition we think we deserve’. That’s a painful condition to have and most of us are afflicted!

      Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting!


      1. We don’t, generally, line them up and interrogate them, unless deemed absolutely necessary. It’s more of a general discussion topic.

        It’s good if you can be happy with what you do without feeling the need for recognition or gratification, but that can be tough sometimes.

        So I feel I should end with, excellent blog, keep up the good work!


        1. I will be amused today by the visual of lining up volunteers and interrogating them. How quickly I’d end up in an empty room! I’m always writing about self-development in progress – so volunteering without needing positive feedback is reaching for an ideal while constantly failing to meet it. True progress is slow in the making…

          Thanks for your kind words regarding the blog!


  14. Wow. This one was hard for me to read. I always *wanted* to be that cheerful volunteer, but I’m not. Singing in nursing homes made me sad and uncomfortable (Do I look at the woman drooling in her wheelchair or not?). My day spent at the animal shelter felt more like I was in the staff’s way rather than helping (washing windows and shoveling mountains of poop). Tutoring high school kids just made me cry and run away.
    I guess I’m not the one to make a change in the world. I’m content now to just make the changes in myself and share that.


    1. I find some kinds of volunteering nearly impossible to do – animal shelters are one of them. I wanted to take every single one of those animals home and always left with a tremendous depression.

      To be honest, if you have your own battles to fight, I think it’s a perfectly legitimate choice and the world would be a better place if we all took better care of our own backyards. I’m simply at a point in my life where I am able to be more generous, which has not in the past and may not in the future always be so.

      And you have been working on your Peer Support Specialist training – how does that not pass muster for making a difference? We all have our “things” that serve to improve ourselves and the world around us benefits from that process.


  15. I think that there is a huge benefit in just giving, even if there is no gratitude or even connection because of it. I think the human spirit is fed by giving more than it is by receiving. I think it’s good for us.


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