I have an extensive CV in volunteering – or at least trying to. But somehow things have never stuck in the long term, and recently I’ve been trying to figure out why that might be. After combing through my volunteering history, I’m starting to see something of a pattern, and I’m going to try to put it out here. Because sometimes you can attempt things, but for various reasons they just don’t pan out and these things tend to accumulate over time. I’ve already written about this in a blog post a few years ago but this time I have the advantage (?) of more experience and perhaps a better ability to see a pattern.
(I would’ve volunteered at school but I thought I had to invest all my time in my school work in case that got compromised – turns out it made no difference in my success or lack thereof upon graduation…)
Local Charity Store, 2005-2006
I enjoyed volunteering here at first, it wasn’t overly busy, I learned some new skills and I got to choose the music for the store. But I made the mistake of trying to find paid work elsewhere which I didn’t last long with because they kept picking on me to talk more and I quit out of stress, then I was made to treat going to the place like a full-time job “for the routine”, so I decided I had to look for a more full-time thing so that I wouldn’t keep being made to go somewhere for the sake of going.
National Volunteering Organisation, 2006-2007
It started out promisingly, getting a grounding in filming, photography and graphic design. It felt like a team effort and like we were bonding over something. It also occurred to me for the first time that I could actually learn some practical and transferable skills for the future. The first few months I felt like it was all going somewhere, but at some point it all started to feel aimless and like they were just struggling to find stuff for us to do. I had no idea how much my lack of initiative would affect my ability to self-start activities and I just kept waiting to be given things to do. I ended up spending most of my time IM’ing people and hanging out on MySpace (!!!) for which I was told off by the supervisor because it meant I wasn’t being productive (even though I hadn’t been given anything to do…), so it started to feel like a chore. I didn’t even know what skills to learn, or even if I did know, what to apply them to or where to take them in the future, so it all just trailed off. My placement was about to end soon and I started to panic in case I was forced to do an autism-specific course again which I’d found really unhelpful and patronising as they had far less of an idea of what autistic people are actually like back then than they do now (seemingly we can only do menial jobs and can’t be expected to aim very high in life…), so I scoured the internet looking for alternatives. That’s when I saw a course that might actually get me into uni (which I’d been desperate to do but had given up on by then) so I quit the placement, losing the few skills I’d learned before long. On my last day I remember being asked what I was still doing there.
September 2007-March 2009
I tried to volunteer with a gardening project at uni, but because I wasn’t given direct instructions and supervision I struggled, and because of health problems I couldn’t keep up with the digging. I ended up saying sorry but I can’t do this anymore. They said they “weren’t surprised” to see me go. I then volunteered at a bookstore in Canterbury, I can’t remember how that ended but somehow it did and I volunteered at a local charity store instead, which I actually liked but my condition (both mental and physical at the time) affected what I was able to do.
I also tried to volunteer at a homeless shelter but I went in for my induction and instantly felt intimidated, being stared at by lots of strange men, and not really being given specific guidance on what to do, and also fearing that I’d be thought badly of if I mentioned my intimidation, so I didn’t go back again.
Upon returning to Glasgow I rejoined the Glasgow branch of the charity store, which went ok at first but the manager who I liked stopped spending as much time there, leaving someone in charge who really took the job seriously, to the point that nothing I did was quite up to standard, so I ended up quitting.
I tried to start a book group, only got one session going then it fell apart somehow…
A Local Interest Library, Jan 2013
I applied to join a local special interest organisation, and volunteered to help catalogue things in their library. I came in for one session to do so, and then offered to write for their magazine. They said they would “be in touch to let me know” on both counts, I followed up with a request for an update and I was told the same. I never heard from them again.
Art Library, Jan-March 2013
I applied for a voluntary librarian position at an art library it seemed to go ok at first, I transcribed some handwritten material and was looking forward to becoming more involved, and although it was difficult to make small talk with the people there I tried to be nice and polite. At first they set days for me to come in but before long I had to keep asking if it was ok to come in, to which they said ok as if it didn’t really matter either way, then day they said they didn’t need me anymore and that they’d “let me know” if they needed me to come back. Not long after I saw that they’d put out an ad for the position from which I’d just been let go. Hint taken.
One of my better volunteering activities took place around now, doing social media work for a vegan website. I learned some basic SEO skills (which I’m *trying* to keep in my mind as they’re actually needed right now) and also got to add something to my CV, although I’ve found that with most of my placements I’ve struggled to know how to keep a good thing going.
City Specialist Library, June 2013-Sept 2014
I got a volunteering placement at a special interest library (one of few things I’m very interested in), which started out promisingly, and it would later help me secure my position in my MSc a year later. It was interesting at first but then it started to become quite disorganised, I never had a secure and quiet place in which to work and it was always as if they were just finding random stuff for me to do for the sake of it, and I wanted to feel as if I had a sense of purpose and actually belonged there. I kept up attendance for a year until I started my MSc then I didn’t feel like I was needed there anymore.
Local Historical Centre, April 2014
I applied to be a volunteer at a local museum and archive site, stating specifically that I wanted to have a research role rather than a tour guide one, because I felt it would be better suited to my skills.
I ticked the boxes for things I’d be happy to do, assured that I would have a mentor under which to work, but instead I was merely shown to a freezing basement room then invited to just start sifting through the mountains of documents, seemingly to no purpose. I was left entirely on my own the whole time with no supervision. I tried this for a few sessions but when I left on the last day, everyone else was chatting away near the entrance, as they were all tour guides and got along, and I tried to announce that I was leaving for the day. Instead of asking when it would be ok for me to come back in, they just said “bye then” and I took that as a sign that I was no longer welcome and they didn’t need me.
I actually based my travel plans around this one, which particularly pisses me off even now.
I was told by my then support worker that they’d make a special effort to get me back into volunteering due to all the difficulties I’d had hanging onto placements, and signed me up for a taster session. The first one was for gardening, which I would have liked if it weren’t for being afraid of hurting the worms in the soil with the spades and forks, which I had a hard time explaining. Then there was a cycling track for disabled people but due to personal issues at the time, I was very upset at the time and couldn’t concentrate properly. I ended up dropping out of the final sessions but had no-one to talk about as to why this ended up happening. Ended up feeling angry and cheated that it had turned out to be such an anticlimax and that I actually thought it would make a difference.
A National Library, April-June 2016
I started volunteering with the a national library, the first couple of times it went ok as I was mostly doing data transcription but the last time I went I was expected to move around the library doing odd jobs here and there. I turned up late this time because I was still stressed from the personal issues which had taken place not long before, and the bright lights and creaking floorboards made me feel really conspicuous and I ended up leaving early. It was deemed to be a good idea that I not return again, at least for the time being, and I dared not go back again because I felt like I had made such a bad impression. I think they just didn’t think I wanted to be there but I really did, I just wanted to be less visible.
A City Theatre, September 2016 (a few hours long)
I was offered an interview for a disability-specific volunteering role at a theatre outside the city centre, I never liked to feel like I was taking advantage or making excuses for a disability but I wasn’t having much luck elsewhere so I tried to take advantage this time. I went in for one photography session, again feeling self-conscious and overwhelmed by how busy it was and the bright lights, but thought I did a good job with the photography. After that they told me that I didn’t need to come back in as they’d found “professionals” to take my place.
I also tried to volunteer with what I thought was a local vegan kitchen/organisation but it turned out to be something else. I still tried to roll with it and took photos of the setting up and food prep like they’d asked me to, although I was uncomfortable with the non-vegan stuff. I did my best though, and thought I’d be asked to do more events but they never asked me to.
International Library (remote), Feb 2017
On Twitter I saw an open invitation from a US library and archive centre to transcribe some of their manuscripts and documents, which I would’ve loved to do. One day I went onto the site to have a go, but found that virtually everything had already been done. I checked back a few more times with the same result, so I didn’t know what else to do. I might still have a go at the Voynich Manuscript at some point though, if I have time…
I guess it was round about this time that I gave up on the idea of volunteering altogether – twelve solid years of trying, not too bad IMO – especially as most volunteering placements require you to either work in a store (which I’d already done and probably wouldn’t feel up to doing again) or interacting directly face to face with the public (again which I tried a few times but realised was extremely difficult for me to do for extended periods of time), so I guess it’s safe to say that I’ve tried and that perhaps writing is the only thing I’ll ever really be good at, and I only get paid for a very small percentage of that right now. And nope – in case it comes as any surprise – I haven’t earned a single penny for this website…
But I think personally, what is notable about the particular examples of volunteering I’ve outlined above, is that one would normally expect such placements to be entirely “in line” with someone who likes alone time, to research things of interest, and generally to put what skills they have to good use. Being terrible at very pro-social placements would not surprise me in the least; what has surprised me, however, is that I have struggled even in such placements where I honestly thought I would excel and find my “niche” after years of trying.
These placements do not include the numerous unpaid writing assignments I’ve undertaken since my (first) graduation, as a certain amount of unpaid work is to be expected in that field of work until you develop a sufficient portfolio in order to command a paycheck. (Often one is expected to continue to work for free indefinitely but that’s a story for another time.) This sort of thing was done to a specific end, in order to further my career, if you can call it one. Nor am I going to include the times spent volunteering with animal sanctuaries, with which I’ve had very mixed experiences. That is something I’d do more often but as I can’t drive I’ve been unable to make it a regular thing.
Thus sums up my experiences volunteering, and generally trying to make the world a better place, in the best way I can. Looking back, I’m now almost entirely convinced that despite my work ethic and desire to learn new skills and better myself (and the world around me), my lack of ability to keep up small talk and network with the “right people” were all responsible for my being let go from positions and replaced with those who were more “their kind of people”, unless I’m strongly mistaken. In addition, my difficulties in planning and initiating multi-step and long-term activities, coupled with a lack of effective mentoring (with the exception of one or two), meant that I failed to fulfil whatever potential I might’ve had once. This has resulted in a long line of sporadic and short-lived volunteering stints which never really went anywhere.