Popcorn. Cookies. Unwanted toys. Assorted donated crap.
I’ve sold them all as a volunteer fundraiser for my kids’ Scouting activities and elementary school yard sale.
Why? Turns out, I’m pretty great at selling. I’ve helped raise more than $13,000 for the elementary school PTO, the Natick (Mass.) Pack 40 Cub Scouts, and the Natick Daisy Troop 72197—more funds than my predecessors have raised in the same roles.
Also, my kids love to sell stuff, and we all love yard sales, having run our own for several years. And selling tangible physical items to people—as opposed to words on a page representing ideas from my brain—is a different use of my skills and expertise.
As a parent, you may be bombarded with requests to help out at your kids’ school, coach a sports team, work a fundraising sale, be a classroom parent, Scout parent or other kid activities. Parents who volunteer are what make some activities happen at all. But with so many requests for volunteers at schools, community events, and elsewhere, how can you decide what to say yes to and what to pass up?
1. Figure out what motivates you. Pinpoint exactly why you want to volunteer. While it’s noble to want to help others, when your time is limited, it makes sense to do what you can that has some meaning. Do you want to help write a grant to get more standing desks at your child’s school because your own kid fidgets a lot? Do you have a free hour before a school performance you planned to attend anyway, so you can sit and sell tickets at the booth before the show starts? What’s easy for you to do?
2. Don’t say yes to every request Volunteers are always needed and once word gets around that you did a task well, other requests will follow. But don’t just say yes to a new request without figuring out if you have the time and energy to do so. Otherwise, you’ll resent your yes.
Once I ran the yard sale well, someone asked if I wanted to serve on the school’s PTO board. For me, who bills by the hour and works best in solitude, I knew I didn’t want to spend more of my hours running other events, attending meetings, and interacting with more people. It was an easy no and someone else eventually stepped up to the role.
3. Kiss guilt goodbye You can’t please everyone. If your kid is begging you to chaperone another school field trip, but the last one you volunteered for left you with a splitting headache, explain why you just can’t this time. Likewise, even if you baked your award-winning brownies for last year’s bake sale but you have too much on your plate and simply can’t commit to it this year, don’t feel bad even if the organizer begs you to contribute. Take care of your own needs first. There’s no reason to feel guilty about not being able to do what you may have done in the past
4. Get some help You don’t have to be stuck doing it all. Ask for help if a volunteer gig is taking up too much of your time. Find out if other people would love to help you out, or reach out to others you can delegate some responsibilities to. Otherwise, bow out as soon as you can once the job is done.
5. See the small upsides Keep in mind what you gain from volunteering. Are you meeting other parents or professionals in your community? Helping a group of people or a cause you deeply support? Developing a burgeoning interest for one of your kids?
I had no idea what Cub Scout popcorn even tasted like before my son told me he wanted to spend an hour standing in front of a local grocery store selling it as part of a fundraiser. When I went to collect him after his hour was up, the adult in charge told me how impressed she was with my son’s technique of friendly, polite, and yet persistent questions about whether passerby would “like to help support local Cub Scouts?” I took notice, and eventually, took on the same role a year later. Today, as my son winds down his Cub Scout experience, he tells me that it was selling popcorn—not earning badges or camping—that was his Cub Scout highlight.
6. Set your priorities. Circumstances change, and while you may have a lot of time to donate at one point, you may find yourself slammed with life at another time. Knowing how you feel about your limited time allows you to set your own priorities about what’s important to you and when. Don’t give your time and energy away when you will resent it if other things such as family or career responsibilities are competing for your attention. And while it’s true that you may care more about a particular pet issue or project than anyone else around you, and you want to throw yourself at the problem to help solve it, if you don’t have time or energy to make it happen, shelve it until you do.
7. Ask yourself: what’s in it for me? As a full-time freelance writer, every hour I don’t work is an hour I don’t make a living. But volunteering my time and energy for these activities has helped me support my kids, their school and activities, and helped me meet others and learn how the community operates. It’s also helped me use my skills in a different way from my career, and find new potential writing clients. And I've also realized that running sales events has helped me become a better bookkeeper, manage my working time better, and networked more. I’ve written stories (such as this one) based on my volunteer experience, and I’ve met potential clients and others in the community who have become friends, potential business leads, and more. I also know that volunteering for specific events, or ones where I can be in charge of my own event, are more fulfilling to me than simply doing a random task here or there.
Additionally, volunteering has helped me sharpen my own hustling skills. By focusing on higher-paying clients and dropping the lower-paying ones, my earnings increase. This has helped me prioritize work and help maintain a work-life balance throughout the rest of the year when I’m not working on volunteer projects.
But beyond all that, there has just been the sheer pleasure of giving back. Years ago, long before kids and family responsibilities were a part of my life, I volunteered with a professional communications organization to gain writing and editing skills, but I also volunteered to read to a sight-impaired woman each week. My boyfriend at the time didn't understand. “Reading to that woman, I don’t get it,” he said. “I don’t see what’s in it for you.” But for me, it was so easy to be able to help someone with something so simple, and even more than that, she and I both looked forward to the visits each week.
In some cases, volunteering itself proves to be its own reward.