8 Reasons that Volunteering Sucks. (So Far…)

When you volunteer in your community, you get back far more than you put in.”

“No matter what your skills are, you can use them to make a difference through volunteering.”

“Volunteering will help you develop a resume and skills that will make it easier to  find a job in tougher times.”

“Volunteering is a great way to network and make new friends.”

The statements above have two things in common. First, just about every volunteer organization has some combination of these sentiments on their website and in their literature.

The other thing they have in common is that I, Ty Unglebower, find every one of them to be a crock of shit.

Once you finish gasping at the thought I will continue.

Too XYZ is a blog about the experiences I have had. Not one-off experiences but trends that I have noticed in my travels. If your only comment is, “that’s not true everywhere,” please don’t bother to comment. Nothing is true everywhere. Nevertheless I standby my thesis statement that traditional volunteering has trended toward being a crock for me. None of those four statements above has proven true for me yet, and I’m not the only one. This message board thread bears out my belief that it’s a bit of an epidemic.

So, without naming names of the specific organizations involved, here is my list of eight reasons why volunteering isn’t worth it.

1. Nobody gets back to you.

Not unlike 99% of hiring managers these days, the vast majority of volunteer coordinators do not bother returning the emails, phone calls or letters of interest that people send to them wanting to know more about their organization. Such places beg and grovel for volunteers constantly, even placing ads in newspapers and online boards calling for same. Yet when people want to know more about schedules, duties, opportunities, etc, nobody is moved to pick up a phone or click off an email. Many will claim that their offices are also staffed by volunteers and as such they get very busy and don’t have time for such things. But really, if you can’t find time to return inquiries from potential volunteers, what’s the point? The office is the face of your organization and if it’s cold to people, nobody will care about helping you.

2. Politics

“Every place has politics,” know-it-alls like to say. While that is debatable, what is not debatable is that most people hate politics, whether in Washington, D.C. or in their offices at work. It may not be avoidable in those places, which is why people who take what little time they have out of their busy lives to volunteer want to avoid even more politics at all costs. The royal court structure of who’s in and who’s out that develops at volunteer organizations is appalling. Playing favorites, keeping secrets, gossip and intrigue. I want to help homeless people, not find a way to play the public relations officer against her arch enemy, the supply manager, so I can get the shift I want at the shelter next week.

3. Lack of appreciation

You might be amazed at how thankless volunteering can really be. I know there are those evolved souls who do work without any need to get anything back because it is the right thing to do. And I agree that volunteering is about helping someone or something else other than yourself. And when it comes to helping people in need, I agree. But that doesn’t apply to the organizations for which you do the volunteering, who really should be thankful for the help they get.

Is the fact that you do noble work really an excuse to not say “thank you” to your volunteers? Or to make them feel guilty about not wanting to take on more responsibilities and longer hours? I have rarely been thanked for the volunteer hours I have given up, and have even been bitched at when I had to end them. Such places don’t want volunteers, they want machines.

4. It’s become too much like a job hunt.

One ad in my county’s volunteer message board ran like this, (I am altering it enough to hide their identity)

The Jones Shelter for the Homeless is seeking kind-hearted volunteers to help register new clients into the system. Must be proficient in  MS. Excel and other database software, have excellent phone skills, able to come in on weekends and keep a positive outlook. Previous clerical experience, preferably in a shelter environment is a major plus. Fluent Spanish is desirable. A bachelor’s degree is strongly preferred,but not necessary. No phone calls please.”

Sounds like a job post to me. Not only based on the amount of work required, but the rather high level of skills expected for a volunteer position. Nobody out of the kindness of their soul can walk in off the street and be trained for this position. And with so many people out of work choosing to turn to the volunteer sector to prevent “gaps” in their damn resumes, they are getting all of the volunteer positions too. It shouldn’t be stiff competition to volunteer at a homeless shelter.

5. Proselytization 

I don’t volunteer to help those less fortunate so I can take part in a prayer meeting or a church service. And here is a newsflash; starving people generally come to a shelter to eat, not to be witnessed to. Of course not all shelters have a religious tone to them, but a great deal of the volunteer organizations that offer help to the indigent and destitute are in fact run by churches. Churches ought to separate missionary work from volunteer work, for the sake of people who desperately need a platform to help the needy, but don’t wish to make it a religious experience, for themselves or the ones they are helping.

I once volunteered with a church at a soup kitchen run by the county. It clearly states on several signs that there is to be no religious witnessing to the clients, but the meal began with a prayer anyway, and that disgusted me. Don’t make starving people listen to your blessing before they eat. Give them the food. I never went back.

6. New people get the shaft.

Similar to the politics complaint.

 “Martha can’t hear, can barely see, and needs a walker to get around these days. But she has been in charge of the kitchen on Thursday nights for 54 years now. You and your three professionally trained chef friends may be willing to offer your wonderful expertise for free as a way to make the kitchen run faster, cheaper, and serve more clients, thus saving us money, but here we do things Martha’s way. You had better ask her about that.

And if you are new, and everybody else that has been around forever is doing everything, and you have nothing to do, nobody gives you anything to do, despite the call for volunteers. Or else all of the good jobs go to the more familiar people.

If you somehow do end up doing a job, and you do it a different way than the person that usually does it, somebody will actually undo what you have done and redo it according to their own method because “we’ve always done it this way.” I have seen people moved to near tears when they discover someone new has covered the cobbler with foil as opposed to the plastic wrap. Anything from a polite debate about “how Nancy does it” to an all out fight, complete with people quitting usually ensues.

In the mean time starving people are literally waiting even longer to be served because the way we cover the damn cobbler is of the utmost importance.

7. Fundraising

I hate it. I hate being asked for money, and I hate asking for it myself. I won’t do it. Yet it seems anymore there are two types of volunteer positions left anywhere these days. Those that are fundraising positions, and those that are called something else but end up being fundraising positions.

I get that organizations always need money, but when will such places learn that shaking a can is a very specific skill that not everybody possesses? You cannot just take people who want to volunteer to help abused animals and turn them into an army of fundraisers. They didn’t volunteer to raise money, (which is the same the world over.) They volunteered because they are good with animals. They have a gift for making them feel comfortable. But they are new, and those skills are not sought after today. (See numbers 4 and 6.) But we always need money, so we are always willing to take on more people to collect donations.

8. You are given more to do by the hour.

Somehow those that come in to stuff envelopes on Sunday afternoons end up being asked to makes copies, set up client contact lists, return a few phone calls in the morning, lock up the place when they leave, coordinate efforts with the shelter in the next county, and grab a gun to go hunting for the Thanksgiving turkeys in the nearby woods. 

And if they decline, they get, “I guess you don’t care about helping out as much as we thought. 

My hope is that you will take this list in the spirit in which it was given, and that is to point out the popular fallacy of how volunteering in its own right is somehow more noble than other pursuits.

Note the “thus far” in the title of this entry. My hope is that one day I will find a volunteer organization that will fit my needs and desires, and vice-versa. Than perhaps I will feel uplifted by volunteering my time. But until then, I’m taking a break from looking.

Do you volunteer? Where? And have you ever experienced any of the problems on my list? How did you deal with same? Let me hear from you.


  1. Thanks for the post Ty!

    Here's how it looks from the inside. Nonprofits are completely strapped for workers, but they also treat their employees very poorly. And there is no bonus waiting at the end of the tunnel, no new job to jump to, within the organization. They get paid whether they have 10 volunteers or 1. So they have little incentive to call you back. They've been completely demotivated by the system.

    I used to try to get volunteers myself for my fundraising program, and if they didn't want to fundraise, they didn't have to. There was always research, graphic design, filing, or thank-you calls to do.

    When I hired an intern, I asked them to check on a list what they would like to do. That way, I could always give them tasks that they enjoyed.

    That said, I've been volunteering for the past six months, and it's surprising how difficult it can be to get people to call you back, email you, or schedule you.

    In the past six months, I've volunteered for a domestic violence shelter, for an arts in hospitals org, for a refugee shelter, and had a sort of 12 hour interview with an environmental nonprofit, (don't know what that was, guess I'll chalk it up to volunteering). I also tried to volunteer for the Austin Bat Cave.

    The only place that got back to me in a timely fashion was the DV shelter, and that's because I knew the coordinator personally.

    The Bat Cave was the worst. I emailed, called, emailed, called, emailed, called, nothing. I eventually started googling board members and calling them. Then, one day, one of the board members finally got back to me. And the next day, finally, the Executive Director *the sole employee* got back to me. And I was going to help her fundraise! And she NEEDS a fundraiser!

    I eventually just had to offer once or twice, then back off, because they're not worth my time if they're not going to get back to me.

    Volunteering IS a waste of time when people don't appreciate you. So create your own litmus test. If you don't hear from them after the second phonecall, write them off.


  2. I've experienced every one of the frustrations you list, Ty. To be perfectly honest, for the most part I only still volunteer out of a deep sense of guilt and social and environmental responsibility. I keep my sanity by limiting the number of hours in a day or week I spend helping out any one organization. I do feel we all have some level of responsibility for making our communities run, but given how miserable volunteering can be, I don't blame anyone for getting burned out and giving up.

  3. I'm sorry that you've had such lousy experiences with Volunteering. As someone who both works in non profit, and volunteers frequently, I am constantly surprised by the benefits I receive from volunteering.

    Free food, free admittance, free drinks, opportunities to meet people I would not otherwise, exposure for my organization, dates, and good karma are all things that I get on a regular basis because of volunteering. Yes, it's work, but it's certainly not thankless.

    Maybe it's just the city I'm in (Pittsburgh) but it's been relatively easy to break into the volunteering scene here, and you'd be amazed how quickly people get back to you once you're an established volunteer.

    Finally, there are many more ways to volunteer outside of soup kitchens and envelope stuffing. In fact, I don't think I've ever done either as a volunteer. Maybe you would have better luck and find more enjoyment in volunteering for special events or performances, serving as a mentor, or participating in neighborhood or park clean-ups.

    Of course there are problems with volunteering and the non profit system, problems exist in every system. But don't write off all volunteering. You are closing yourself off to some great benefits. And please, don't try to discourage other people from giving their time, our communities need volunteers.

  4. I'd agree with a lot of your points. i look at this way: if an organization needs volunteers, then they don't have money, and if they don't have money, they probably aren't well run.

    I think nonprofits need to completely rethink how they do things and figure out how they do things.

  5. Thanks everyone for your comments.

    Mazarine, I see where you are coming from, and I do understand some of why it may be happening, but as you say, there's no reason to make people feel unappreciated.

    Lori…It's admirable to feel the desire to serve the community, but hopefully you will come to the point where you do not feel guilty for not doing so.

    Cameron- I am not sure I totally agree with your assessment about non-profits, but I do agree that a wide scale rethinking of how they operate may in fact be in order in this country.

  6. I've had good experiences volunteering, but I've only sat on the boards of all volunteer groups (I think they have some national level staff, but from my point of view all volunteer). As a student there was tons of activity… weekly meetings, outreach events, general meeting, and all the planning to make it happen. Outside of school it has been less frequent… planning meetings once a month and one or two activities a month.

    I've grown my leadership and planning skills tremendously, picked up tons of amazing career advice, and gotten a tiny bit of speaking experience.

    Very few non-profit groups really are the backbone of communication and organization they need to be to make things work out. I might be worse that there are paid people because then they are relied on to do all the planning and make all the decisions.

  7. Anonymous

    I found this blog through searching Google for “volunteering sucks” and I have to admit that I'm relieved to have found it. It will give me a way to vent anonymously…

    Recently, and like others out there, I decided to assume the role of volunteer. Unlike most people, however, who volunteer by doing things like scouring the local community to pick trash up and whatnot, I decided to volunteer my web design and development expertise. Needless to say, the experience has been a living hell.

    First and foremost, I can honestly admit that I had fun in the beginning. Everything seemed like it was stemmed from a good cause and everyone wanted me to help them without being too brazen about how this “help” came to fruition. As time progressed, this changed.

    Now, I get phone calls at inconvenient times of the day about things pertaining to this website I've set up for the non-profit. I guess I've been placed on-call?

    One time after a monthly meeting, I received approximately 7 or 8 individual e-mails pertaining to information some of the people wanted on the website. These e-mails contained everything from images to PDF files… It took about 2 hours to get everything organized and uploaded / displayed accordingly due to the strict naming conventions, precise articulation of wording, placement and positioning, padding / margins, etc. All for nothing…

    Again, I get phone calls now from the main person in charge of this organization who believes that having a successful non-profit boils down to having a perfect website. One night I even received a phone call from her at 9:00 PM! “Hey, could you add X-Y-and-Z to the website?”

    Keep in mind that this organization is using WordPress–something that allows them to upload / edit EVERYTHING.

    Needless to say, this will absolutely be the very last time I EVER do any volunteerism. These lazy cretins exploit the help they're given and while part of me understands their desire to get every ounce of water from the sponge, I also understand that their tenacity for constantly drafting the younger generations into said roles is never gone unnoticed–there's a reason for this. The younger generations allow them to outsource specific responsibilities for free. Do you think that some seasoned web designer who is established with a day job would give the time of day that some young kid like me would? Of course not… Do you think that some professional would do this sort of work for free? Of course not… That's why they pick people like me–because they know I'm doing this half the time for networking instead of any common ancillary benefits.

    Regardless, the point is old but constant: never volunteer for bastards.

  8. Anonymous,

    Thanks for the post! It's true, we got volunteers to do work for free that otherwise we'd have to hire people for. Sometimes volunteering leads to paid work. Sometimes not. But calling you at home, and all the time, to do something that they could do?

    AWFUL. Gotta tell them to fuck off, and fast!


  9. Anonymous

    I am so happy to have found this site because I thought I was losing my mind. I have been self absorbed so long and had an epiphany that my life would improve dramatically if I “gave back” to the community. I researched endless hours to come up with an Organization that “spoke to me” and I finally found several. The first was volunteering to plant trees, something I had never done before but thought it sounded interesting and I could learn a thing or two and my black thumb might turn somewhere nearer to tiel…..No response after about 12 attempts at contact and NOW, I am so excited about trying to vounteer at a battered womens shelter and I have called, emailed, emailed, sent the application in followed by an email and NO CALL. I am in utter disbelief and so greatly disappointed in these people. The victims of this are the people in need and because of these extremely poorly run non profits, they will continue to suffer needlessly.

  10. You are absolutely right. It is those who are supposed to be served that suffer most from the politics and BS of so many charities. I am sorry you experience has been so poor, but thank you for stopping by and sharing your situation.

  11. Anonymous

    Thank you very much for this blog posting. I got yelled and screamed at by an old 80 year old this morning. I had to put toilet paper rolls inside little clear plastic bags. My crime was not poofing up the top of the bag and tying it with blue ribbon. Toilet paper rolls should not look like mini Easter gift baskets or a table display from a wedding. That woman ranted and raved for 45 minutes.Geesh. Working behind the scenes at a soup kitchen/food bank is not easy work.

  12. Wow. That toilet paper thing may be the best example of what I am talking about that I have ever come across! Absurd!

  13. Anonymous

    I have had a terrible expereince in the past few months looking for volunteer work. I've applied for two charity shops and chased them up a few times. They all said, “We will phone you next week.” I spoke to the managers personally both times. No joy.
    I have had a negative expereince of voluteering in the past with being put under immense pressure and being mistreated by a manager. I had some wonderful experiences too though. I made the mistake of assuming that every experience you have with volunteering will be great.
    Half of them just use people up like kitchen roll. Take a piece use it a lot then throw it away and get another piece off the roll.

  14. Anonymous

    Thanks for the post. I was starting to think something might be wrong with me! I am not working at the moment and will be going back to school in a month. I thought I would use my time wisely and do some good around my community. I found what I felt was a great non profit, signed up for the orientation, had to drive nearly an hour to get there, even had to pay for them to do my background check and provided a bunch of references. I was told that the background check came back fine and that my references would be checked right away. Well it's been a month and my references have yet to be contacted. I was one of 3 people at orientation and we were told that the organization needed a lot of help, specifically family mentors for refugees. I was truly enthusiastic about doing some volunteer work for them but I am now wondering if I should really continue calling, emailing, and pressing the volunteer coordinator who seems to care so little about wasting my time!

  15. Yet another example from the trenches of what I am talking about in this post. Absurd experience for you!

  16. Anonymous

    I live in place where unless you've medical exemption you can become homeless and be evicted unless you volunteer certain amount of hours to the community which was some “higher ups” ideal with the Seattle Housing Authority office. Even though I am disabled been very ill and exempt I have made few attempts in past volunteer through different organizations mainly those that share personal interest to get my rusty skills from not getting rustier and perhaps to get into few free events. I experienced some of similar things too but because I have less experience dealing with these things I thought it was personal and got quite upset. I too googled “nonprofits suck” to see who else is experiencing this. Thanks for posting this. You were able to express this whole better than I did.

  17. Again, I too googled “nonprofit sucks”. I am 27 years old and I have been in the grey area between volunteering and semi-employment for too long now.
    This year I decided to enroll in a film-making course, and guess what's the subject of the screenplay I'm writing at the moment! Volunteering.
    I don't know much about volunteering in the States but all of what I read in these posts rings true. Here in the UK it sucks even more though because both the previous and the current government have this policy of axing public service jobs and then asking the “community” to do the same jobs for free.

  18. Seems like it is a world wide problem, not just inb the US. Good to know. (Or perhaps it's not so good to know…)

  19. Anonymous

    hi, new to the site, thanks.

  20. Anonymous

    I'm also really glad to come across this page. It's ridiculous how unappreciative and bossy these people can be. Volunteering should be fun and volunteers should be free to show up when they want and do whichever jobs they want. The jobs they stick people with are either a waste of time or way too much work to justify dealing with a snippy attitude. While rebuilding a school in SF, the woman in charge walked around doing nothing and actually yelling at people for taking breaks!! I understand the cobbler comment (haha) because there was a fight at a kitchen in town here about the proper placement and amounts of food. WHO. CARES. The reason I searched for “volunteering sucks” today is because my husband is dragging me to volunteer at a festival we worked at last year for the sake of our neighbor whose name we don't want to tarnish by not showing up. Last year the woman who gave us our jobs was incredibly entitled. We we ended up selling t-shirts for 10 hours and were accused of taking t-shirts (they were ugly anyway!!) and never thanked. In the end she offered for us to buy a leftover shirt for full price and “give us that opportunity”. Wow, thanks.

  21. Sounds like quite the case of entitlement to me, Anonymous. The problems is that it gives not only the person, but the organization itself a bad name. Even if they could do a lot of good work, people still don't like working with asses!

  22. I cannot agree more! You've done a fantastic job of pinpointing the areas of volunteering that have STOPPED me from volunteering in the past.

    About 10 years ago, I decided to volunteer at my city's animal rescue league as a “cat socializer”. My job was to take the cats out of their cages, play with them, and then put them back. At the end of my shift, I was to wash out the litter boxes and do some light housekeeping. Fine, no problem. My first day started off great. I played with a bunch of cats and at the end of the shift, went into the storage area where there was a sink to begin washing litter boxes. There was another volunteer there who apparently had been there since the beginning of time. When I soaped up a litter box and began scrubbing it down, I heard her say, “Oh no … not like that.” She grabbed the wet, soapy box from my hands and began washing it herself. Then, she started having a conversation about “the way people do things” to another volunteer, who was also washing litter boxes. I was standing there without anything to do, and they were both talking to each other and ignoring me, so I went home.

    The next week (I volunteered on Saturdays), was awful from the start. I was told that I was “playing with the cats too much”. Um … what is my job again? Another snotty “head” volunteer told me that the cats were all riled up by the time I put them back in their cages. I was supposed to be socializing them to get them ready to be adopted, but apparently that was beyond their realm of intelligence. They just thought I was being a nuisance, even though I had answered an ad in our local paper looking for “cat socializers”. I asked if there was anything else that needed doing. There was a dog area where you could walk the dogs and play with them, but they told me that I wasn't allowed there because I was “too new”. I told them that I had a dog and four cats at home and that I knew what I was doing, but they brushed me off. I asked for some cleaning duties, and they told me there were none. I went home and never went back.

    Ten years later, I began volunteering with a non-profit organization. I was welcomed, was treated with respect, and have made fast friends with some of the head volunteers. Now, the type of volunteering that I do is very physical. There is also another branch of the organization that puts together fundraisers, etc. I can see how this part of the non-profit may fall into the same category as what you talked about in your blog. However, I have not really experienced much of that yet. I think that the trick is to stay as “removed” as possible and only do the work that you feel comfortable with. I feel comfortable with the animals, with getting my hands dirty, and working with the friends I've made. I've earned the trust of my fellow volunteers and have gone further with this particular organization than I ever had the chance to with the other one. I hope to stay on for many years, but like I said, I would rather remain a “background player” to avoid any of the BS that you (and I) have encountered. The animals keep me going back, and the nice people I’ve met are a plus. But, like anything, if it wears out its welcome, it can become more of a hassle than its worth.

  23. Well, New England, I am glad that despite your bad history with volunteering you have now found a place where it is actually rewarding, and works for you. It sounds like just the wort of place I had wished I could find when I tried to volunteer. And perhaps some day I will find such a place.

    I hope it continues to work for you! Thanks for stopping by.

  24. Anonymous

    I'm with the others who said they were relieved to have found this. A recent experience has me rethinking if I really want to continue volunteering. After being with two organizations for over a year and a half, I have a mixed opinion toward volunteering. It seems that it was a bit more fun and rewarding in the beginning.

    I volunteer for a cat adoption agency and in a thrift store that benefits the local domestic abuse shelter. Usually the worst part is dealing with the public. I hate that I keep thinking “These people are getting on my frickin' nerves, and I'm not even getting paid for it!” At the cat adoption agency, I'm confined to a really small space, and I'm supposed to clean out 10 cages while a huge family comes in, getting in my way while scaring all the cats. It's a rewarding experience when I deal with intelligent, courteous customers at the thrift store and the cat center, but having to encounter idiots pretty often makes me want to quit volunteering sometimes.

    Then there's the fact that when I've already had to stay 30 minutes after at the cat center, I'm a little irked and ready to go, but then someone makes the assumption that I will do another adoption so I can stay another 30 or 40 minutes. Volunteers want a life, too, and deserve respect. I know how to set boundaries and tell someone what I will and will not do, but I shouldn't have to as a volunteer. Most people I know aren't willing to extend even half the amount of time I have to help others without expecting pay. I'm not saying it makes me someone special. I simply have a problem when a volunteer can't be shown appreciation and receives any amount of disrespect.

  25. You may not be claiming so, but perhaps you ARE in fact something special, if you are willing to dedicate your time, energy and skills to a cause bigger than yourself. In fact, I'd argue that anybody who does so is special to a certain degree, if they put what they are doing ahead of politics and games while volunteering. Sadly, many do not, and that is what I have always found frustrating.

    But a person shouldn't have to be special in order to receive someone'e respect. I can't understand why so many volunteer organizations cannot give that simple, vital thing to their volunteers. They certainly deserve it. You certainly do. And until we behave in a disrespectful manner, we ALL do. I am sorry you are not getting the respect you deserve from your volunteer supervisors, (or whatever their title may be.)

    Just another sad example of volunteering going wrong. (I still haven't volunteered anywhere since I wrote this post.)

  26. Ce

    I actually came across this also while online searching. I know that maybe within a few years I may not bother volunteering anywhere else or really limit doing so. I think I pretty much experience all on your list but 5 & 7. There are pro-volunteer websites in how to compensate the cost of recruiting etc. volunteers by demanding more from “free slave labor.” It seems that many organizations want “free laborers” to do work that no one wants but should be paid for it.

    • Yes, i think that is part of the problem, Ce. People volunteer because they want to make use of their skills doing something they are good at, or that they enjoy. If all volunteers are shifted to the unpleasant work right away, they won’t want to come back.

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