no good deed

Yesterday was largely a stellar day. It included a sushi lunch and dinner at a Japanese tea house, as well as the writing of the most fun and satisfying ed memo I’ve done in a long time.

However, I had a frustrating adventure yesterday, too. At two pm, a woman I do not know called my place of work–I’m not sure where she got the number; there must have been at least a little bit of stalking involved–ecause she was unhappy with an article published by a nonprofit Buddhist organization for whom I do volunteer work as a freelance editor. (A long story about how I got involved, since I don’t have any religious leanings myself. But I’ve been doing this for almost three years and have mostly enjoyed helping the nice people.)

It took me a little while to wrap my head around what the woman was saying, since I’m not used to thinking about the magazine at work. I asked her what specifically she was referring to, and she refused to be clear with me, but told me she had retained council and that I would be legally liable for the libel. Her council would be in touch. At this point, I started to feel flustered. I told her there was a complaints number at the church–listed nicely in the magazine–that she could call if she had a problem, and other people she should be in touch with, as I was neither author nor publisher of the magazine, only a freelance volunteer editor, a cut-and-paster. She had already started to talk over me, though, and hung up on me with a final shout that I would be hearing from her lawyer.

Eventually–after about 40 minutes, and rereading of every word in the magazine to try to figure out what might have upset her–I decided the lady was probably taking out some frustration but didn’t actually have a case. When I realized this, I calmed down. But I lost about an hour of my work day, on what was otherwise a really good productive day. To make matters worse, my office is open, and we all share a phone line. So everybody knew what had happened, and knew how upset I was. They were all nice and sympathetic, but they didn’t have to be. It wasn’t a very professional situation. I guess I just don’t like being called up in the middle of the day and shouted at and told I’m going to get sued.

Of course, being an incurable gossip, I told everyone I knew about what had happened. The almost universal reaction was “quit that volunteer position–it’s not worth it.” Which doesn’t come totally out of the blue–for three months now, I have received difficult correspondences about the magazine–a chewing out that it was a week late (which made me angry, as all I do is collate articles; I rely on the contributors to actually write them), and then a letter from a reader asking me to account for my failure to publish an article she had sent in almost two weeks after the due date. In both cases, I got stressed out and upset. I don’t like when people are unhappy with me, regardless of the circumstance.

But I also don’t want to quit this job. I really like the people, and I like the cultural events I get invited to. I think that as volunteer work goes, it is manageable, something I can do pretty easily that someone without my specific skill set might struggle with more. I don’t want to leave folks in the lurch.

I’m curious. Do you volunteer at all? If you do, is it pure joy and giving back, or are there occasions that you are stressed out or frustrated?

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21 Responses to no good deed

  1. Karissa says:

    Okay, my dear, most people who volunteer (well, perhaps this is me being optimistic here) are doing it because they believe in whatever it is they do, and they (hopefully) derive more pleasure out of it than pain, or at least personal satisfaction, or at least the feeling that they are helping out a cause/organization whose mission they feel strongly about.

    I think if you’re getting more stressed out about this than you are enjoying the work, it’s not worth it. Or, scratch that — if you’re getting more stressed than you believe in the importance of your work in contributing to something that you feel is a good cause, then maybe it’s not worth it.

    I guess I raise this because I think — if you’re not that into Buddhism itself, or the organization, then perhaps this isn’t the volunteer job for you. I mean, really, examine the reasons why you’re doing this. Is it just your blanket desire to help people (because we all know you like to be helpful)? The problem is, all non-profits can be a bit bureaucratic, and the thing is, if you are relying upon people to be thankful for you doing what you do, without really necessary believing in the cause behind what you’re contributing to, you might be disappointed, because then the compensation lies in the gratification of having helped people, but if things become difficult, you might instead feel taken advantage of and resentful, which might still happen if you believed in the cause, but at least then you would have the bigger picture making it worth your while.

    That’s all.

  2. Sigh, yes. These are the arguments offered by many (although not everyone is as sympathetic as you–most people are like “wtf is your problem, just quit”).

    But I am INTERESTED in Buddhism, as you know, and the bilingual element is good for me (I don’t have many other venues for practicing Japanese). Plus they often feed me.

    Tenuous arguments?

  3. Can you talk to the magazine about no longer providing any sort of contact information for you? It seems to me that complaints should be going through the magazine first and then the magazine staff could contact you if they felt that a complaint actually warranted your attention. I would think that the magazine would want to make this easier on you as I’m sure they appreciate your help.

  4. I volunteered for a few years at the local science center, mostly cleaning animal enclosures but I got to do some small presentations. Taking out a snake for people to touch and reciting information about it, that sort of thing. It was mostly a great job, but people had really bizarre complaints even in a place they came to for a fun field trip. Like that the nocturnal animals weren’t entertaining enough at 2 PM. Darn things had the nerve to be sleeping. One woman told her kids the animals were all dead and stuffed and we weren’t admitting to it, just because nothing happened to be running around at the exact moments she peeked into the enclosures.

    I also had to explain on the phone to a random caller that 1) the science center was not an shelter for random animals people find by the roadside, and 2) that actual animal shelters aren’t staffed by kill-happy maniacs, just people who will put an animal out of unjustified misery. I was fourteen at the time. The caller seemed satisfied with my advice, but I often wonder what her reaction would have been if she knew she was talking to some volunteer kid.

    Any job that brings you into contact with strangers will have its share of ungrateful people, and suspicious types, and all sorts of other unusuals, most of whom can’t seem to understand simple written information. Unfortunately, it’s human nature to think of the one crazy jerk before we think of the dozens of people successfully helped.

    Maybe it would help to have your title changed? If you’re listed as an “editor”, people might be thinking you’re some all-powerful deity of judgement instead of what your role actually is.

  5. Kati says:

    I may be a bit unorthodox, but I was always raised to believe that we do things for others and because they’re simply the right thing to do. If you love the people you’re serving, all the better! So that’s my take – don’t quit just because some people aren’t acting nice. Real volunteering is not supposed to be all fuzzy and nice, that doesn’t count as volunteering – it’s called entertainment! If you think you’re doing the right thing, then unfortunately there probably isn’t a way to get around human nature.

    Sorry, I’m on a bit of a high horse!!! And of course, repeat incidents of abuse are an issue, so no one would blame you for gracefully bowing out since it might take the stalkers a while to catch up with the person who takes your place.

    But you asked about my experience volunteering. I do some research and writing on a volunteer basis. And yes, I both love it and find it utterly infuriating!

    • Sing it, Kati!

      I think you’re kind of hitting the vein of why I am so reluctant to move on. It seems just as easy not to–especially if I end up feeling guilty for abandoning them later.

      • Karissa says:

        You know Kati, while I agree, I think that there is also a limit. In that, if people are taking advantage of your kindness, then it’s not a good thing for anybody. And also, that’s why I asked her to examine why she is doing it. I think if a person goes into volunteering knowing that this is something that they believe in and that they’re doing the right thing and it doesn’t matter what comes after, then there’s ideally no chance of feeling an iota of resentment. Except that that’s not the case is it? Also, I don’t think volunteering is necessary about “the right thing to do” because in that case everyone should be volunteering for everything. There are so many ways in which we could help in the world, it’s absolutely impossible to dedicate ourselves to everything. By not doing it, is that “wrong” then? Don’t get me wrong — I’m a big proponent for philanthropy and volunteerism — I volunteer a lot myself. But I think what a human with limited resources and time as well as personal well-being and health must consider is if he/she is spending these limited resources in a way that is doing the most good. Of course volunteerism isn’t primarily about personal satisfaction or warm fuzzy feelings, but I’d argue that if you begin to become resentful or your own personal well-being is threatened (not that this is a serious threat, but let’s be hyperbolic), then you may not be doing good work anymore.

        J, I think if you’re feeling guilt over “abandoning” them, I’d think about 1. why you feel guilty — is it because you actually know you’re leaving them in a lurch? Or is it because you simply have trouble saying no/standing up for yourself/you’re too nice? 2. if it is that difficult for them to replace you.

        Also, overall, I’d consider what other people have said about talking to them about the issues, getting titles changed etc. At the end of the day you can best serve people only if YOU are okay with the situation at hand and your own mental state is solid. Nobody would say that you’re a bad person if you quit — so there’s nothing to feel guilty over. Of course I totally understand where you’re coming from — I’ve been unable to extract myself from three donation situations that I can’t afford because I feel major guilt — so this pot/kettle. But I do think you need to consider how much the annoyance/hassle/negative feelings you have impact your perception of this position overall. If it’s a one off thing, here and there it’s annoying, then that’s fine. Talk to them about it perhaps and figure out a solution. But if it becomes pervasive, and you don’t feel that strongly about the thing — quit. There are tons of nice people in the world. You’re not morally obligated to help all of them. If you were the kind of person who could completely be happy helping people thanklessly and not feel any sort of unhappiness or resentment, then all the power to you. But I don’t think you are and that’s okay, because most people aren’t. Most people want to feel appreciated and don’t want volunteer work to become something that becomes an unacceptable burden. You don’t “owe” these people anything… It’s nice you want to help them, but they’re not your family, and hell, they’re not even your good friends. They’re not dying children, and they’re not abused women who will die if you don’t help them edit their paper. They’re Buddhists, and nice ones at that, and it’s great you want to help them, but you need to find a way to make it work for you.

        Because honestly, if it was just a minor issue, you would not have written a blog post about it.

      • Karissa says:

        Also: I know I don’t need to say this, but I only give you this advice because I know you’re far too giving of a person. If I thought you were a self-absorbed selfish person who was now being complainey and whiny over some volunteer work you wanted on your resume (or to impress people with) where you weren’t appreciated and was too much hassle — I’d also tell you to quit, but because you are an ass.

        Luckily for our friendship, you’re not an ass.

  6. cindypon says:

    i volunteered for the first time this year in
    both sweet pea and munchkin’s classrooms. i had
    no inclination before this. and yes, i do derive pleasure
    from it and also know i’m helping the teachers and
    students. and wow, so sorry this happened to you.

  7. JES says:

    In the late ’80s, while still in NJ, I volunteered for about three years with an organization called Recording for the Blind (RFB). I’d had visions of recording poetry and fiction for them. (This was before audiobooks really took off, so that option didn’t exist.) Unfortunately, so did probably 90% of their other volunteer readers. Instead, they rejoiced to find out I was a computer person, because that meant they’d have someone to record books about computer programming for them.

    I really didn’t like doing it. It was hard to stay focused on keeping my voice clear, and not to let my voice go into drone mode. (The first recordings were monitored in real-time, during which one of their pros would listen in and advise you on various stumbling blocks — how to narrate figures and tables, for example — and remind you to speak clearly, and so on.) And it was REALLY tricky to read blocks of sample program code in such a way as to be unambiguous: (p = (x+y)/z), for instance, would be something like “Open parenthesis, lowercase p equals open parenthesis lowercase x plus lowercase y close parenthesis slash lowercase z close parenthesis newline…”

    But it wasn’t difficult work, and they were soooo grateful to have somebody with that sort of expertise. And one night a week, I got to drive by myself down dark wooded roads to Princeton and back, and listen to whatever music I felt like, and think about Things I Really Need To Think About. (Pre-cellphone era, too — no calls to interrupt.)

    And, yeah, it felt good to be doing something that somebody else was getting a lot out of. I’d been so self-absorbed for a long time and really needed that. When I moved here I tried to find their local office so I could keep going — but they HAVE no local office (in the capital city!). Maybe audiobooks have completely erased the need for volunteer readers, I don’t know.

    About your situation, I agree that you need the Buddhists to take on the deal-with-the-readers role for you. And after all, they should be spiritually well-equipped for it. The idea of Buddhists insisting neurotically that someone else must subject themselves to stress actually cracks me up. 🙂

    …and Karissa’s advice — answer for yourself why you’re doing it, and only THEN act accordingly — is also excellent. From what I know of you, I can easily imagine your being just the sweet, soft-touch sort of personality she describes. “Too nice for your own good,” y’know?

  8. Leeann says:

    I co-founded a non-profit, grass roots autism organization three years ago. There are times, like this week especially, where it becomes so stressful and frustrating that I wonder if it’s worth the hassle. After spending considerable amounts of time at the Capitol lobbying for insurance reform and funding for evidence-based treatments, which decades of research show have the potential to have a profound impact on an autistic child’s life – even to the point of recovery – I’ve been yelled at, sworn at by legislators, told “hell no!,” and asked by parents “what’s in it for me?” It’s usually during those trying times when I get a call or an email from a mom who tells me that her son with autism just called her “Mom” for the very first time because she got him in treatment early, thanks to us, and she just wanted us to know. Or, the frustrated mom whose child broke his arm and the insurance company refuses to cover it because of the autism diagnosis. Once again, the passion builds, the resolve pushes us forward and we remember why we keep forging ahead despite failures. I think sometimes we get lost in the details, the wrath of other people, and it stifles our ambition. The degree of difficulty and time spent not knowing if there will be even a small consolation prize, not for you but for the sake of your mission, leaves one wondering, is it worth it? Yes it is. There are many lives we’ll touch without us knowing it; there are minds that will be changed if we keep pursuing it. Even if it’s only inspiring the next generation of volunteers.

  9. Kati says:

    Karissa, I agree with you that guilt is not a good reason to stay. But also I’d clarify that “the right thing” is not the same as “a good thing” – I personally believe there is an issue of conscience where we feel confident that what we are doing is the right thing for us to be doing. It’s all a little ethereal, I know, but I do think it’s important. Even if there are many logical reasons to pull out, if she feels doing this is right, that has got to count for something.

    It’s clear you’re very passionate about this and have thought about it a lot. Is that in response to this situation, or do you have a parallel experience? Don’t want to pry, just wondering.

    Jes, I love your story and I think it captures perfectly the nuances and dynamics of this discussion 🙂

  10. I, too, edit a newsletter as a volunteer. I decided that I would not worry about any complaints I received. I just laugh. I have excused myself from angry phone calls with “oh, someone is at my door”. If I were you I’d adopt a pseudonym and put that in the contact page. Let them look for someone who doesn’t exist… stalkers deserve what they get.

    There are still people who don’t talk to me b/c they disliked the actions/stances I took as President of the School Board – a volunteer (elected) job which took 80 hours a week and for which I endured scorn and enmity but which ultimately provided the students with a better education.

    Is it worth the angst? If you’re doing good work for good people and you enjoy it then try to ignore the crappy parts. At least, that’s my opinion.

  11. Mary says:

    I went to Catholic high school and college and was required, as part of the curriculum or because of the dozen or so scholarships I cobbled together, to volunteer a specific number of hours. It kind of stuck. And then, during a difficult time when my father was dying and I was in grad school full time and working full time, volunteering reminded me I wasn’t entirely helpless, even when I was in situations in which I felt helpless. If I could help someone else, then clearly, there were situations that could be redeemed through effort, even if I wasn’t surrounded by them at the moment.

    I volunteered early Saturday mornings at the local library for most of the last four years, and I got a lot out of it, but I quit this April, and it was a good thing. Nothing bad happened to precipitate it (I’d had a run-in several years ago with one of the research librarians, but we both got over it), but as much as I got out of it, I felt like it was emptying me out, and given that work and family were emptying me out at the time, I felt the need to leave. It wasn’t the only volunteer thing I was doing then, but after the other volunteer opportunity ended, I didn’t rush into replacing it. When I did (in August), it was with something that consistently brings me more joy. I don’t think that volunteering has to bring you joy— there are many worthwhile opportunities that don’t— but not every volunteer commitment is meant to be forever, either.

    You’ve said you want to stay, that it’s serving you, and I think that’s the decisive factor. You’ll know when you want to go, when you’re staying for the wrong reasons. And when you do quit, whether over this kind of thing or something else, don’t feel bad.

  12. WendycinNYC says:

    I volunteer a lot (and I mean A LOT.) While I do it because I enjoy the work and I believe in the cause(s), I also have to remember to be very clear about what I will and will not do. It’s great as long as there are boundaries.

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