March 13, 2006

There's no "i" in volunteer work, but you'd be surprised.

In high school, I was one of those overachievers who couldn't make a sandwich without thinking about how it would look on my college applications. I joined everything from chamber orchestra to environmental club in my attempt to look well-rounded, stopping just short of playing sports (even I had my limits).

Volunteer work was a big plus in the world of competitive college admissions. I wanted schools to know that I was not only smart and competitive, but had a soul as well.

Instead of just venturing out into the world looking for people who needed me, I found a club at school that would not only help me find projects, they also kept track of my hours, gave me certificates of completion, and happily vouched for my volunteerism on college and scholarship applications.

And that's when I discovered the world of community self-service.

I call it community self-service because, instead of helping the people who needed me most, I was maximizing my personal gain (in this case, building credentials) while minimizing my own effort. A lot of my hours were met through lame projects like putting up posters around the school to raise awareness for things, and the bureacracy of running the club itself.

OK, so I was a self-centered teenager. Isn't that redundant?

Community self-service is rampant among adults too. Back in my newspaper days, I wrote several articles about a service club. They were a group of prominent local women joined by their mission of "community service." It was a depressed mining town in desperate need of some service - a place where most people my age had more children than teeth.

After six months of planning their big debut project, what did the club come up with? A fashion show. A fashion show to raise funds for a scholarship... that ultimately was awarded to one of the club member's daughters. Apparently, what the town really needed was 1) better awareness of JC Penney's spring line, and 2) slightly reduced tuition costs for an upper-middle-class family.

I fantasized about slapping bumper stickers on these women's Acuras and Lexuses that said something like "Community service means getting your hands dirty."

Instead, I promised myself I would never confuse social networking or resume padding with community service. So why am I writing about this today?

Last fall, I was invited to join the board of directors for a local non-profit. I was hesitant to add one more thing to my schedule, but I agreed because I believed in their mission, I wanted to make a difference, and - honestly - I thought it would sound good on my resume.

In the six months I've been on the board, here's what I've accomplished for the homeless families here in Reno: I've attended every meeting, saying "Aye" when it's time to approve the meeting minutes or last month's expense report. I brought some pasta salad to a potluck for the other board members. I spent 8 hours at a strategic planning "retreat" in January setting goals and objectives that have barely been touched since. I volunteered to lead a fundraising committee that still hasn't met, because we're all too busy.

And all the while, I've taken pride in saying "I'm on the board of directors for a non-profit." I've been engaging in community self-service, and it's time I got over myself and got my hands dirty.
This afternoon, I'm meeting with some other board members who have been about as service-minded as myself. I'm going to challenge my fellow members to actually do something toward the goals we set months ago. I'm going to remind everyone who we're really supposed to be serving, and that it's not ourselves or our social network. The homeless families who benefit from our programs don't really care about the wording of our mission statement. They need us to act on it.

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