It’s really hard to see the needs of the world and not want to fix it all. The statistics are staggering:
- Poor nutrition causes nearly half (45%) of deaths in children under five – 3.1 million children each year.
- There are 7% of our kids who have dropped out of high school by 16 and still haven’t obtained their GED by 24.
- Each year in our animal shelters approximately 2.7 million animals are euthanized.
- By very conservative estimates, in January 2015, there were 564,708 people who were homeless on a given night.
For anyone paying attention, it’s heartbreaking.
Frankly, it’s easier to walk away or dabble in helping than staying with it for the long term. There are two types of volunteers I’ve met many times. The first signs up to volunteer at a food pantry for three hours one Saturday. As the doors open, the needs and the people flow in. She is struck by how many people in her own city don’t have enough to eat. While she’s deeply saddened by the situation, she doesn’t come back because she doesn’t think she can really make a dent in the problem.
The other volunteer that showed up that one Saturday was so enraged by the need that he signed up for every hunger committee in the city, prayed for hunger to end, wrote letters to all of his representatives, volunteers at the food pantry every Saturday, researched how to start a new nonprofit to solve the hunger crisis, etc. etc. Less than two years later, he too was burnt out.
The results are similar, just on slightly different timelines.
(I’ve totally been the volunteer that signed up for every committee! And then was frusrated because progress didn’t happen fast enough. A dear friend gave me the book, The Impossible Will Take a Little While, and I read parts of it when I feel my impatience roaring up, which is often.)
You can’t solve hunger.
Or homelessness, or underemployment, or malnutrition, or childhood obesity.
That is, you can’t solve these massive issues by yourself. It takes groups of people, working together, and leveraging their individual gifts. What these issues are really asking of us is to do our part. Those who are hungry, homeless, don’t have access to fresh food, or live in a failing school district, they need people to show up to listen and to live out their gifts…not do everything to solve all of the problems.
As volunteers, the tendency is to get caught up in the doing, the progress, the task list. When progress isn’t made, when you can’t check the task off your list, the likelihood of you quitting increases tremendously.
If you focus on the relationship and your strengths, the likelihood of you making an impact increases dramatically.
I’ve interviewed residents of a homeless shelter, specifically asking, “What do you want of volunteers?” I’ll never forget Oliver. He said, “Stop trying to solve my problems. I have myself and my case manager for that. Just listen to me like a friend. Don’t judge how I got here and don’t try to fix me.”
Isn’t that what we all want?
What is mine to do?
For many who want heart-centered, meaningful work, they ask, “Where is the need? How can I solve this need?” This is the wrong question. The best question, and the one that will energize you, is, “What is the work that is mine to do?” You have strengths, talents, a perspective that is uniquely yours. In order to really solve these massive issues, and connect with others authentically, you must find the work that is yours to do.
Your job is not to solve all the world’s problems, or to save anyone. There was only one Mother Teresa, and you are not her. Of course there are lessons to learn from her life: selflessness, bravery, tenacity. But often times if you’re asking the question, “Where is the need?” you start comparing yourself to Mother Theresa, then become overwhelmed because you have no ability/interest/inclination in moving to India to start a hospital, so then you do nothing.
With my coaching clients this is where I’ll often hear: “But I feel guilty that I’m not doing anything.” “I should want to help those in Mother Teresa’s Kolkata hospital.” “I have so much and they have so little. I should give.” None of these statements are helpful. Guilt usually makes us turn inward and take no action. Discernment allows us to take responsibility for what is truly our work.
Instead, if you ask the question, “What is mine to do?” you’ll discover more about yourself, the issue, and those affected by the issue. This process will allow you to become much more specific about the right charity and justice work for you.
- Visit and listen to those already working there. Be present and patient.
- Volunteer for several different organizations addressing the same issue, but from different perspectives, in short-term experiences (less than 3 months). Don’t make a commitment quite yet.
- Try numerous projects and attend fundraising and learning events. Learn as much as you can about the issue and the people affected by the issue.
- Learn as much as you can about yourself while experiencing each opportunity: what brought you joy? Where did you experience compassion, not just empathy?
- Make a meaningful commitment based on the answer to, “What is mine to do?” The length and amount of responsibility will vary depending on your season of life. Now is the time to make a significant commitment to something bigger than you. I’d recommend 12 to 18 months at a time.
- Follow through on your promises to the organization, those it serves, and yourself.
When you find yourself becoming frustrated, impatient, disconnected, start back at step 1 by listening to the need AND yourself.
Now it’s your turn.
How do you stay engaged in your social causes and what are you strengths that you use to do it? More importantly, how do you re-charge when you need to?