How to Suck at Volunteering : a personal story of how I did it and how I fixed it

by Naomi House, MLIS

How To Suck At Volunteering

Naomi House at NPRSurprise!  This is not really and truly a list of how to suck at volunteering!  I could have just as easily called it How to be Great at Volunteering.  So why the negative slant in the title?  Because I have been a bad volunteer and I learned more from my mistakes. The bad always sticks with me longer and between the two titles I know I’d only read this one.

You know this cannot possibly just be a list of pet peeves and complaints screamed into the vast paper bag that is the internet; nope, because this is INALJ (positivity #ftw) I will actually be focusing instead on how to be a great volunteer!  But frankly listing how to be a bad volunteer can easily be flipped into how to be a good volunteer; just DO the opposite, right?

Though I plan on making this more of a what to do list lets get the negative out of the way first, shall we, with some tried and true tales of how I have messed up past volunteer jobs.  Notice I use the term “jobs” because volunteering is work.  It is labor and it is uncompensated labor you are doing for someone else.  The work done at some of my volunteer jobs was more intense, and more important than several of my paid jobs for certain.  So how did I mess up?


  • Miss ALL the deadlines:  Being timely is important, sometimes critical.  Though life can get in the way even if you DO miss your deadlines be sure you are communicative with whomever is supervising your work.  How did I screw this one up?  A few years ago an esteemed librarian gave me an opportunity to work on a book series that would eventually have been for profit!  Wow!  We met, drew up deadlines, discussed workflow … printed business cards and then began to write.  This was part of what I had volunteered to do but I was stumped. I put it off and worst of all I was not honest with my now business partner about my struggle.  I got lucky in that the librarian ended up recognizing that I was failing in my promises and ended the project early, but I clearly owed them an apology and had to recognize that the failure was not only mine alone BUT it had been a waste of everyone’s time and that was very unfair to my team and the person who put their trust in my work ethic.


  • Not Communicate:  Yup, a double negative. I can live with that.  Life happens.  Health, family, your compensated employment schedule; all kinds of things can get in the way of completing your tasks / work.  But it is vital that you communicate ASAP with whomever is supervising so they can figure out coverage or realign.  In addition to communicating with supervisors if you are on a team you need to be flexible and good at listening to your teammates concerns.  So how did I screw that one up?  Years ago I volunteered with a GREAT group of teachers teaching language skills.  The first semester our group gelled and I learned from the various teachers and gained confidence and a new set of skills.  The second semester half of our group changed and I was paired up with an energetic new teacher who if I wanted to try one thing they were dead set against it, and anything they suggested I balked at.  We were at odds on Everything and I felt quite the victim of this bulldozing, disagreeable partner.  Of course I was incredibly self-centered, inflexible, and non-negotiating.  Once the disagreement started I never gave their point of view any serious consideration and I fought and pouted and was generally miserable to work with. I was a bad team player.  You know where the “I” in TEAM lives so lets leave it there.  But sadly, I did not realize this until much later and have never properly apologized.

So the positive spin on this is :
do what you say you will and be transparent and communicative with all involved from your manager to your teammates. 

So as you can see Every Single Don’t – Way to Suck is something I am very familiar with because I have done it.  This isn’t an article to call out anyone specifically and especially not INALJ volunteers. I have been both a GREAT volunteer and a terrible one.  No-one is to blame but me for my mistakes and I deserve the praise I earned too!  I really want everyone who had been through this or considered volunteering to know that I know the pratfalls and mistakes that can happen because I have done them.  Been there, done that, learned and now I expect better of myself. I expect better of all my volunteers too and LIS folks have very rarely disappointed!  I have been blessed with over 600 volunteers in 5 years, and so very many of them truly exceeded all expectations. INALJays (what I call us) ROCK!

So what should we do to be sure that the volunteer work we do is a good fit for us as well as our skills are a good fit for the work?


  • Be timely: This is KEY!  If the workplace needs X done by a certain time or done with regularity do not agree unless it will work with your schedule. Deadlines are usually not arbitrary.   Which leads to….


  • Don’t overpromise:  Whether it is the volume of work, the amount of time or your true feelings on how long you can commit, Be honest with the volunteer organization from the start.  You’ll be happier.  They’ll be happier and you won’t be wasting your time or theirs!


  • Communicate: Email, phone, in person – the world we live in is fantastically full of platforms and methods of communication!  So don’t let discomfort and anxiety lead – your volunteer manager and teammates need to hear from you so that the whole project goes smoothly.  YOU are very important to the success of anything you give your time to!  Also if you are ever in a bad work relationship or being bullied, even at volunteer jobs, please let someone know and hopefully there will be a mechanism in place where you can feel safe and comfortable doing this.


  • Do the work: Um yep, what you signed up to do, do it. No excuses and if you can’t then communicate why you can’t with the manager.  Easy-peasy.


  • Be mindful of your time commitment:  Volunteering is something that means you will be sacrificing time and labor, even sometimes work.  Blogging here is volunteer work for the site, uncompensated, for example.  Really examine if this is something you are able and willing to give to.  There are a ton of projects I would love to support and I give small donations of money to, but would love to be more involved but I can’t.  Volunteering is often something people in positions of privilege have easier access to because time is so commoditized in our culture.  Don’t put yourself in a position where you feel you have to choose between taking care of yourself and family versus volunteering: you should always come first and this is what I mean about being mindful, be mindful of yourself.

What are some does and don’ts you think we should also consider?

Naomi House

Naomi House, MLIS, is the founder and publisher of the popular webzine and jobs list (formerly I Need a Library Job) and former CMO (Chief Marketing Officer) of, a crowdfunding platform focused on African patrimony, heritage and cultural projects. INALJ was founded in October 2010 with the assistance of her fellow Rutgers classmate, Elizabeth Leonard. Its social media presence has grown to include Facebook (retired in 2016), Twitter and a LinkedIn group, in addition to the interviews, articles and jobs found on INALJ. INALJ has had over 21 Million page hits and helped many, many thousands of librarians find employment! Through grassroots marketing, word of mouth and a real focus on exploring unconventional resources for job leads, INALJ grew from a subscription base of 20 friends to a website with over 500,000 visits in one month. Naomi believes that well-sourced quantity is quality in this narrow job market and INALJ reflects this with many new jobs published daily. She has also written for the 2011, 2012 and 2013 LexisNexis Government Info Pro and many other publications in the past decade. She presents whenever she can, including serving on three panels at the American Library Association's Annual Conference in Las Vegas; as breakout presenter at OCLC EMEA in Cape Town, South Africa; as a keynote speaker at the Virginia Library Association annual meeting; at the National Press Club in Washington DC; McGill University in Montreal, Canada; the University of the Emirates, Dubai, MLIS program and the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Naomi was a Reference, Marketing and Acquisitions Librarian for a contractor at a federal library outside Washington, DC, and has been living and working in Budapest, Hungary and Western New York State. She spent years running her husband’s moving labor website, fixed and sold old houses and assisted her husband cooking delicious Pakistani food. She is preparing to re-enter the workforce and is job hunting. Her husband is now the co-editor of INALJ, a true support!  She has heard of spare time but hasn’t encountered it lately. She pronounces INALJ as eye-na-elle-jay. 


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