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Core or Chore? Carol Ryan on Volunteerism

Posted by Carol Ryan

“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and then go and do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” – Harold Whitman

I love this quote. I can’t say I live it, but I believe it with all my heart. I was surprised when, upon the invitation to write about the emotional rewards of volunteering, no one moment stood out in my mind. It made me ask myself, why do I volunteer?

The volunteer aspect was a big reason I joined SVP 10 years ago. I was a journalist then, so a natural fit for me was to write articles for the newsletter. I remember interviewing SVP partner Molly Hanlon about why she volunteers. I still think about her response: “It’s how I was raised. It’s just something you do. Sleep, eat, work, go to the gym, volunteer.”

Come to think of it, volunteering is a lot like working out: You may not always enjoy doing it, but you feel so much better when you are done.

Over the years, I have honed other professional skills through SVP volunteer projects. When I began exploring how to redirect my career from the corporate to the nonprofit sector, I turned to other SVP partners for advice. It was humbling to realize how much work it would take to prepare for the transition.

In 2007, a volunteer opportunity arose with SVP investee, MetroCenter YMCA and their Alive and Free youth violence prevention program. They needed someone to develop a marketing plan, and I needed experience developing marketing and communications for a non-profit.

It was a tough assignment to take on—with a baby, a pre-schooler, a four-day-a-week corporate job, and other volunteer commitments. But the experience was invaluable. It was a breakthough in how I could marry my professional skills with a cause that helps save lives by helping kids eliminate risk factors associated with violence, like guns, drugs and alcohol.

I learned to develop marketing materials with little to no budget, and watched with amazement as the Alive and Free program leaders filled a community center room with representatives of law enforcement, social service, and schools for a training on how to keep at-risk teens Alive and Free.

Beyond the rewards of the position, my work with MetroCenter also opened doors.  It strengthened my resume for the nonprofit sector, and in the fall of 2008 I was hired by Explorations in Math, where I now serve as the director of development and communications.


The leap from the corporate to the nonprofit sector has brought many changes to my life, but volunteering remains a constant.  I can’t help it.  It’s in my blood.  My dad was a mentor to an ex-convict who came to our house for Sunday dinner. My mom served as Sunday school principal, Thanksgiving food basket organizer, Christmas Adopt-a-Family coordinator—and on and on. One of her prized possessions is a small plaque she received for 25 years of service to the St. Vincent DePaul Society.

Like Molly, I come from a volunteer family.  Sometimes it’s a chore.  Sometimes I do it because I know it’s good for me.  Sometimes it opens doors.

Above all volunteering keeps me grounded even when all other aspects of my life are whipping about madly like kites torn loose in the wind.

No matter what else is going on, volunteering resets my position in relation to true north, a point on the compass that represents what is real in life.  It is me doing my part to make this way-too-crazy world a bit saner. So while I aspire to do what makes me come alive, I also get through this week, this day—the next hour. Sure it will be busy. I bet I will say more than once, “What was I thinking, taking this on?” Then I will reset and focus on what is in front of me, what matters, and what I need to do right now.

Why Do You Volunteer?

What inspires you to volunteer?  A family tradition?  A way to connect with your community?  We’d love to hear you thoughts!

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