Volunteering, controlling, and team-building (or, just a few of my issues)

Writing woman Unlike my sister, I’ve never been much of a traditional volunteer (although I have been the mother of a Tennessee Volunteer). I’ve spent most of my adult life as a commuting work-outside-the-home mother whose workplaces have often been a significant distance from home, so I’ve tended to guard my non-work time, and volunteering has rarely fit into it. I’m not against the idea of volunteering; I’ve just been reluctant to give the time to actually do something. I’ve spent most of my career working for nonprofits, and I’ve seen first-hand how much they rely on and value volunteers…and yet I seldom join their ranks. I’ve struggled with guilt over that, and have often tried to make up for it with monetary contributions instead of time.

Lately, though, I’ve noticed that I’ve been stepping up as a volunteer more often, although it’s not in the usual context. It’s virtual volunteering that I can do from my own desk – although it sometimes has an off-line component – and it usually benefits a fairly specific group that I already belong to, not my kid’s school or a charity. I’ve learned that life’s too short to let a good idea languish waiting for someone else to pick it up and run with it, and so lately I’ve stopped waiting and become an Organizer. That’s basically how I wound up coordinating the book-blogger meet-up at the LA Times Festival of Books back in April.

For another example – and a story you may have heard part of already – some of my book-blogging friends were talking on Twitter a few weeks about the upcoming Book Expo America and Book Blogger Convention, which recently concluded in New York City, and lamenting not being able to go. Someone remarked that “we should just do something ourselves,” and a few hours later, there was an e-mail list. I offered to create a sign-up form to gauge interest, and shared it with those on the list willing to post it on their blogs. As interest grew, I suggested we set up a dedicated blog to centralize the information and plans; I bought the domain name, chose and tweaked the design, and wrote the first couple of posts. Other members of the group stepped up for other parts of the project – coordinating blogging themes and interviews and giveaways and Twitter activity. We launched Armchair BEA in just over two weeks, creating a virtual opportunity for nearly two hundred book bloggers to share knowledge and network from their own homes.

I fully admit that my willingness to get involved in efforts like this comes from my own needs – I like structure, I like schedules, and I have control issues. However, I’m also timid about breaking into established groups, so I like to come in near the beginning of a project when I can, as the structure’s still being created. If I get involved early and can take control over scheduling and structuring something, I make myself happy. What’s surprised me is that other people not only don’t seem bothered by my organizing, they seem appreciative. Maybe it’s because I make the effort not to take control in a controlling manner – I try not to be bossy. I also communicate the limits of what I’m willing to do – I really only want to control a piece of the effort, not the whole thing. I’m trying to keep my control issues controlled, too.

One thing about taking an early organizing role is that I sometimes get more credit than I deserve for originating the idea behind whatever it is I’m organizing, and I feel weird about that. The thing is, being “in control” isn’t necessarily the same thing as being “in charge.” Most of the time, being “in charge” carries a level of responsibility – and related anxiety – that I don’t want or need. I want to be able to make some of the decisions, but not necessarily the big ones. And I don’t really want to take on the whole thing; I’d rather be part of a group effort. I may be taking a lead role, but I’m not usually the leader – I’m more like an operations manager. Apparently I’ve learned a few things from 23 years of office life that are pretty useful for volunteers, too.

“If you want something to get done, do it yourself.” But you don’t necessarily have to be the only one to do it.

Parts of this post were previously published in a different form on the Los Angeles Moms Blog.

Image credit: stock.xchng

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