6 Things to Consider Before Volunteering If You Have a Chronic Illness

As an individual dealing with a chronic pain condition called complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS), I am always looking for ways to contribute to the community of those who have been impacted by chronic pain and disability. A few years ago, I became involved with a national organization representing the interests of individuals with CRPS. In my article, “5 Tips for Evaluating Health and Disability Charities,” I discuss the importance of volunteering as a way to increase your financial investment in an organization. In this piece, I want to share some insights on the role of volunteers in nonprofit organizations.


There is a necessary give-and-take for volunteers and these tips may be helpful to consider before your next volunteer endeavor:

1. Volunteer work for individuals with health concerns can be a dicey enterprise because it adds extra stress to our lives. The effects of stress on one’s health can arise even when it is “good stress.” Simply put, you can feel terrific about the opportunity but the demands of the work can still tax your health. Finding a way to incorporate your volunteer work into a reasonable load will help make your involvement sustainable. I don’t like the term “burnout,” but if you don’t make accommodations for your health along the way you won’t be able to stay involved with the work long-term.

2. Ask the organization for a “job description” for the volunteer position. The organization should be able to provide you a short description of what it is you are volunteering to do and what your role will be. Without this description, you may encounter issues such as doing work that is redundant or stepping on someone’s toes because you are working outside of your scope. Your role as a volunteer is to support the organization’s mission in ways they have identified are needed.

3. Identify one individual in the organization to whom you should consult and communicate. This should be a paid staff member, rather than another volunteer. Once the relationship is established, this individual will likely bring you into various teams of people working on different aspects of a project. When you are assigned to a particular project, clarify with whom you will consult when you have questions or need guidance. When difficult situations present themselves, and they will, you will know with whom you should share your thoughts on the issues.

4. Contribute new ideas freely, but don’t expect them to be acted upon right away, or at all. Making changes in any organization, big or small, takes time. When an organization asks for volunteers to take on a given project, they should also give you specific advice on how they want it done. When sharing new ideas with the organization, there should be a process in place for responding to suggestions. If there isn’t, suggest that they develop one. In the end, they may not act on your advice, but your contributions should be acknowledged and appreciated nonetheless.

5. Start slowly and ask a lot of questions along the way. Some volunteers, me included, tend to get in too deep, too fast. When an organization has a small number of paid staff, they are working on dozens of projects at one time. They may be clear on what needs to be done, but their volunteers may not have enough information to get it done. As a lifelong volunteer, I can’t think of a single time when I asked too many questions.

6. Don’t take on a volunteer role that supplants, or replaces, a position that should be held by paid staff. When an organization considers a project mission-critical, they will dedicate the human and financial resources needed to make that project successful. If the organization is not allocating enough resources to a project, that is a sign that the project is less of a priority than one they do fund appropriately.

Volunteers are essential to the success of fundraising campaigns, constituent relations, events and more. There are many reasons it is important for organizations to cultivate relationships with volunteers, chief among them is that it elevates their messages and helps to build a foundation from which they can expand their reach. When the relationship works, your efforts will be both helpful to the organization and rewarding to you. Use caution, but also an abundance of passion, when deciding to invest your time and efforts in an organization.

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