Setting Boundaries as a Volunteer

Many of us volunteer because we have a passion for a cause or organization and want to make a difference. While we often go in with the best of intentions, we don’t always have a clear understanding of our roles and responsibilities. And most importantly - we often forget to set boundaries.

According to the Cambridge dictionary, the definition of a volunteer is “a person who does something, especially helping other people, willingly and without being forced or paid to do it.”

While that may seem like a simple definition it is rarely so clear cut.

For those of you who volunteer, are there times when you are asked to do things that maybe go beyond your original intention or comfort level? Do you sometimes think - wait a second, I’m the only person around the table not getting paid, shouldn't one of the paid employees do this? Or is your volunteer work starting to suck more of your time and energy and you no longer have the excitement you used to have?

It is natural for all volunteers to go through periods of enjoyment, frustration and sometimes downright resentment. After all, volunteering often involves working with humans. so human dynamics and emotions come into play.

Set boundaries

Regardless of how long you’ve been in your volunteer role, it’s important you set some boundaries. If you aren’t clear on your limits, how do you expect others to know and respect them?

When I talk with volunteers who are frustrated with their experience, I often find their frustration doesn’t stem from the organization, but rather not setting boundaries then getting upset when those unspoken boundaries are breached.

It’s never too late to set boundaries.

While what your boundaries are will vary from volunteer to volunteer, here are some areas to consider:

  • Time commitment - how many hours a month are you able or wanting to volunteer

  • Interests - what roles are of interest to you and what areas are a no go

  • Knowledge level - do you want some on boarding before you begin volunteering or are you comfortable jumping in

  • Time of day - when are you available (or wanting) to volunteer? Mornings? Afternoons? Evenings?

  • Training - is there any training you would like - health and safety, board development, first aid, etc.

  • Notice - if you’re sitting on a committee or board, how much notice do you need prior to attending a meeting. For working volunteers, this will help minimize expectations you will attend meetings called on short notice.

Say no

Finally, give yourself permission to say no. It’s that simple. You don’t need to justify or explain when you’re asked to do something that is not of interest - for whatever reason.

Just because you signed up to be a volunteer does not mean you are required to do everything that’s required of you. And guess what? I’ve found when I’ve said no, without explaining, I’ve not received pushback. If you do, it’s likely not an organization where you want to continue volunteering.

Self check-in

I encourage you to take some time to reflect on the boundaries you have, or haven’t set, as a volunteer. If you have set them, how clear have you been in your intentions? Are there times you’ve allowed your boundaries to be crossed? If so, how did it make you feel and what are you doing to prevent it from happening again?

If you haven't set boundaries, I strongly recommend doing so now. Look at the bullet list above and reflect on your volunteer role. Write down what your boundaries are and make a point of speaking with the organization about your boundaries. While it might feel awkward, it’s actually a sign of respect as it tells the organization you are passionate about helping but want to make sure the volunteer role is set up so you can continue to be a volunteer.

Every six months, pause and check-in on your boundaries, how they are being respected and determine if you need to establish new boundaries. By doing so you will have a more meaningful volunteer experience and have the energy and passion to help your cause or organization.