I will always remember a certain exchange I had with a girl I had just met, and have never seen again, as we introduced ourselves at a function about a year ago:
She: “So what do you do?”
Me: “Well, until recently I was a management consultant. Now I do fundraising and some research with not-for-profits”
She: “Oh ok. Like, paid? Or as a volunteer?”
She: “So… you don’t work?” Slight confused pause. “How do you eat??”
Me: “Well, I guess my husband and I made the decision jointly for me to quit work, and so we survive on one income”.
She: “Oh”. Pause. Lightbulb moment. “Oh, so your husband’s a doctor!”
There are many things about this conversation that could inspire a blog post. They’ve certainly inspired much thought on my part and lively conversation with friends. Aside from the rich husband comment (which made this conversation one of the funnier ones), I get this exact line of questioning almost every time I respond to the question “what do you do?”.
Every time, I find myself thinking: Why are we so defined by what we “do”? How do we communicate a lifestyle choice (such as volunteering, rather than working) without being judged, or sounding judgemental? Why is it so unfathomable that a 24 year old may choose a life path other than career? Why is voluntary work less valued (something that needs to be ‘excused’ by having a wealthy husband)? Why do I find myself reluctant to tell people I’m a full-time volunteer?
I plan to touch on all of these questions at some point, but in honour of National Volunteer Week in this International Year of Volunteers + 10, I want to reflect on the question – why is there a stigma around voluntary work, suggesting it is less highly valued?
Here’s the context for me: in April last year, I left a job in management consulting at a Big 4 firm, where I’d started as a grad two years earlier, to pursue a variety of volunteer opportunities (primarily with Room to Read and Volunteering Qld). It was a pretty quick decision, though it was based on much though, reflection and a growing understanding of my values.
So now, when faced with the “what do you do?” question, I have a few stock answers. Which one I give depends on my quick (completely superficial and often baseless, I admit) assessment of the questioner and how I think they will respond to my full-time volunteerism..
- “Well, until April last year I was in management consulting. I had been doing a few different volunteer activities on the side and I decided to give them a proper go full-time”
Subtext: I don’t think you’re going to ‘get’ me being a full-time volunteer, or I think you’re going to judge it. So, to preempt you, I want you to know: I have a brain. I was not fired. I’m not pregnant (common assumption for a few months after resigning, especially since there was a pending wedding….). I do this out of choice.
- “I coordinate a group of volunteers in Brisbane supporting an international not-for-profit”
Subtext: I don’t think you need the career background, but I don’t want to have ‘the volunteer’ discussion.
- “I’m a fulltime volunteer”
Subtext: I’m up for a laugh, let’s see what you say to that.
OR you’re a nice person, you’re in this space, you’ll get this.
I have slowly weaned myself off response one. It was my safety blanket last year (and when required, I can now once more say “I’m studying“), but the truth is I have felt challenged by this perception around my choice to volunteer and I want to challenge that perception right back.
Over time, and through many “what do you do?” inspired conversations, I’ve discovered that people often think:
- Volunteering is something you do in order to get a ‘real’ job. Even before I was studying, people would offer that as a suggestion for why I was a fulltime volunteer. “Oh, so are you studying?” Many (truly) lovely people have given me very well-meaning suggestions about how one day my volunteer ‘work’ can translate into something paid. It’s hard to explain that paid work is not on my radar and is not a motivator.
- Volunteer work is not as hard as a real job. People have suggested it must be “nice” to be able to get away from the rat race and be a volunteer. Yeah right! I’ve never worked so hard in my life!
- Volunteer work is of less value than paid work, in the sense that people would not give up one for the other. The reaction I often get is one of patronising congratulations; that it’s really good of someone like me, who has a bit of time now, to use my time well. I find that people (not all, but some) can’t always comprehend that I could find unpaid work so much more fulfilling than paid work that I might choose it over paid work and forsake a traditional ‘career path’.
I think a lot of people would deny that they hold those perceptions, but in countless conversations I’ve seen those assumptions come through. Now I know my situation is not the norm, and I completely appreciate that I am blessed by circumstances that allow me to make the choices I have made, which I will cover in a later post (though for the record, Michael is not a doctor!). I also wonder whether it is fair to extrapolate from people’s reactions to the way I volunteer, to other forms of volunteer work, as I think there are far more factors at work there (a genuine curiosity, perhaps some confusion and surprise, maybe others?).
But I do believe this reveals some general truths around the perception of a lot of volunteer work. In particular, that it is less complex and challenging, requires less responsibility and is merely a pathway to something better (or a little outlet for our ‘good deeds’). For me, volunteering presents countless opportunities that I would not otherwise have, in a format that works for me and allows me the flexibility to create my own space. As I’m sure many other volunteers will agree, the challenges are bigger, but the rewards are even better. It’s just a shame that a lot of people (and allow me to generalise here from my own experience – especially those in the corporate world) don’t see the activity as having the same inherent value.
Obviously I’ve failed to mention the wonderful people who completely, unquestioningly and wholeheartedly support what I do and how I do it. They are out there and I love each and every one of them. I also meet plenty of people who appreciate the depth of skills that volunteers can possess, understand that people are motivated in innumerably different ways, and value them accordingly.
However the prevalence of either the ‘cute little do-gooder’ label or the ‘CV-building-ladder-climber’ perception have me concerned. I think the world is missing out on wonderful people who want to contribute in countless ways for countless reasons.
Have you had a similar, or perhaps completely different, experience? I’d love to know!
In the meantime, a big salute to the millions of Australians who volunteer each year. You know who you are, what you do and why you do it – and no matter what, you are amazing and you are making a difference. That’s all that matters!