All Work and No Pay

AnnMarie McLaughlin - April 30, 2008

Just imagine - you've made it through the work week, maybe gotten ahead on that pile of laundry and pruned your backyard shrubs. So, now you get to reward yourself with a Saturday morning off, right? Maybe a mountain hike, maybe brunch with friends? What if instead you spent those precious Saturday morning hours in the hot sun pounding nails? For someone else? For free? Plenty of Santa Feans do just that and call it volunteering. There are over 600 nonprofits registered with the New Mexico Attorney General and that's just in Santa Fe. Most of those have few or no paid staff members and rely on volunteer hours for everything from building theater sets to taking out the trash. But why on earth would you want to take out someone else's trash and why would you do it for free?

Here's the thing about donating your time: anyone can do it. Some of us have skills and expertise to offer and others among us have cold hard cash but everyone has time, whether it's an hour a month or several days a week. You don't have to be retired or wealthy or full of nonprofit experience. While some volunteer positions represent a major commitment (training for museum docents is extensive and serving as a Board member means being accountable for an organization's operations), others are suitable for those with less time to give. Donating an hour to take tickets at a music performance, organize office records or make reminder calls to other volunteers can seem like tiny contributions but they make a huge difference to nonprofit administrators who can then put their energy toward other work.

So volunteer hours are a boon for nonprofit organizations and the communities they serve but what's in it for the volunteer? Some are motivated by the idea of keeping things local. Traipsing off to the Peace Corps half-way around the world is daring and exotic but there's plenty to do right here.

Lending a hand to a group that benefits you personally, whether it's cleaning up your neighborhood or directing traffic at a political rally, makes a very real impact on how you see your world. Volunteer efforts plant trees, raise funds, shelve books and clean up rivers, tangible efforts that afford a sense of satisfaction and participation.

There are of course less visible gains. It isn't easy to measure the impact of helping a student learn to read or holding a newborn while her mother makes time for an older sibling afflicted with baby envy, but those are highly regarded volunteer "benefits." Besides, volunteering is fun. It means meeting new people and learning about the causes, issues and initiatives that matter to you. It may bring new skills or training and there are often perks such as performance tickets, social gatherings and opportunities to hobnob with leaders you admire.

Ready to give up that Saturday morning to rake horse stalls or teach yoga to seniors? Give some thought to how much time you're willing to give and how you'd like to spend that time. Are you eager to share your skills or do you need to leave your own office behind? If you work full-time in marketing, offering to design an ad campaign for a nonprofit may leave you feeling over-extended. Make yourself sleep on it before agreeing to mentor a troubled teen or raise a set of puppies for an animal shelter. Saying no is fine; dropping the ball halfway through a commitment leaves everyone in the lurch. Even if you are only helping out for an hour, signing up for a volunteer position is a responsibility. Nonprofits routinely schedule several more people than they actually need because so many fail to show up.

If you take the time to find an organization that's a match for you, before you know it you could find yourself fixing a roof for free, hammer in hand and a grin on your face.


Network for Good
National searchable database of nonprofits. Lists volunteer opportunities and means of making cash contributions.

New Mexico Attorney General's Office
Searchable list of charities in New Mexico.

Santa Fe Community Foundation
Searchable database of local organizations and their volunteer needs.