Volunteering to Connect

pc-697644_1280Today, I’m really struck thinking about connection.  This might be a bit rambling but let me try to explain.

Last week I boldly did what few of my peers have braved to do…I went (basically) without an Internet connection for an entire week!  We had just moved into our new house and our new Internet provider couldn’t get things going for several days so I set about getting settled without this modern “necessity.”  Admittedly, my smartphone, its little screen and a shaky 3G connection gave me tools to find the closest hardware store, pizza joint, etc. and I could still cruise social media and email a little, but the change was still noticeable.  The week of being wireless (actually wireLESS, meaning without connection) and the change when I was indeed back online has been interesting to observe and has infused some of my other thinking this week. Read on…

Mercifully, our router got delivered and the wires connected just minutes before a phone/Internet meeting with some of my mentors back in Oregon.  We were meeting to iron out details for the workshop we will be presenting at the upcoming Fall Conference for the Oregon Mediation Association.  In the course of our conversation, each of us shared our own journeys to our careers in mediation and facilitation and some common threads emerged.  Among these, was a common experience of volunteering, doing significant amounts of unpaid work.  As the newest of our group of four, I shared that I hoped volunteering would help me build skills and connections which would support my paid work.  In fact, I had met all of these women while volunteering in one form or another and I had, indeed, built my skills considerably in the process.  One of our other presenters shared a similar experience of dedicating countless hours to free mediation, yet her expected outcome was vastly different from my own.  Rather than expect the volunteering to lead to paid work, she simply hoped that volunteering would help put mediation “on the map” as a tool to help people solve conflicts.  In many ways, she was working/volunteering towards a MUCH larger and loftier goal than I, simply in hopes of improving the world.  I was struck wondering if the intention behind the volunteering impacted our experiences in doing the work.  In some ways, I got frustrated with doing so much free work without being paid.  In contrast, my colleague took every successful mediation as a victory and relished at having created a new “convert” to mediation as a way to solve problems.  This connection with my colleague, including our differences, really shaped my thinking.

This idea of volunteering and why people do it has been on my mind ever since.  Having just moved and working to professionally establish myself in a new community, I have quite a bit of free time but very few local connections (personal or professional).  Given this, volunteering promises many benefits but now I catch myself in thinking about WHY I’m volunteering.  Am I trying to fill time, build connections, get ahead professionally (with expectations like I had before)?  Or am I just hoping to strategically make the world a better place?  How might my expectations affect the experience I have in volunteering itself?  What connections and possibilities am I missing in thinking about volunteering as a means to a self-absorbed end?  Again, read on…

A month ago, I agreed to serve on the governance committee for a nonprofit board back in Oregon.  At the time, I figured that it could easily fit into my schedule and would be a good opportunity to give back to an organization that had helped me and learn a few things along the way. Admittedly, I also hoped that this service might one day lead to paid work.  This morning, in a phone meeting with one of the other committee members, I found myself getting completely jazzed up for the impact that our committee’s work could actually have.  It was amazing to get excited with her for the potential that we discussed….and whether/how this act of volunteering might lead to paid work was truly the last thing on my mind.  I suspect that it may pay-off like the experiences I discussed in my “Slumdog Millionaire Mediator” post but even if it doesn’t, I’ll still be beyond satisfied.  Personally, it felt great to belong, to enjoy the company of a fellow human being wrestling with shared challenges.  As a volunteer, my expectations melted away; the work itself was simply exciting.

To try to bring this full circle, I thanked my lucky stars for the opportunity to connect this morning.  I am struck with the ways that my connections enrich my life in so many ways.  Far beyond the “likes” on Facebook, connecting with friends, colleagues, even strangers over ideas is exciting and nurturing in irreplaceable ways.  I hope that as I move forward (volunteering or in paid work) that I won’t lose sight of the value of those human connections and their richness.  I also hope that I won’t have to go without the Internet again for a while. 😉

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