Five years ago I spent my birthday on a roof in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward. I didn’t know anything about roofing—I’d hesitate to say that I know much about it now—but this didn’t stop a kid from Habitat for Humanity from handing me a hammer and pointing to the roof.
He said, “Just don’t fall. That would be bad.”
By 10:30 a.m. on day our motley crew of five had shingled our first roof. That afternoon we mounted insulation, painted walls, hung drywall, and did whatever else was needed for people truly in need.
So how did I end up on the roof? The American Academy of Ophthalmology was the first conference to re-commit to New Orleans after Katrina, and the circumstances inspired the AAO’s first partnership with Habitat for Humanity. At the time, I was overseeing jointly sponsored CME at the Academy. Instantly I knew this was something I wanted to be a part of.
What’s stopping you?
The two biggest barriers to volunteering are a “lack of time and passion,” as Sundeen et al. wrote in their 2007 article on perceived barriers to volunteering in Nonprofit Management and Leadership. The real secret, the one you learn only after you get involved, is that these “reasons” are baseless.
Think about it this way: Most of us who plan medical meetings are constantly trying to staff committees. Organizations serving our communities are in the same position; there’s plenty of work to go around. Some groups won’t be right for you. You may not feel like you’re making enough of an impact, or you might hate working with the rest of a committee. That’s OK. Once you identify yourself as a volunteer in your mind, you’ll seek out new avenues for engagement and find organizations that fit. Begin by looking for organizations that align with your values, and don’t be afraid to walk away if the relationship isn’t right.
Finding your passion can be difficult; it took a national disaster to get me engaged. There are a lot of people who want to do something but don’t know how to start. The truth is that it doesn’t really matter—the trick is to just pick a place and start. You can figure out the rest as you go.
Once you find the right group, you’ll realize why “lack of time” is an excuse, not a reason not to get involved. Professional engagement not only strengthens your knowledge, but it also opens doors you’d never have even known existed otherwise. Personal volunteerism bolsters your values by supporting your passions. I’ve realized that I can’t afford not to be involved.
Brian Thompson, assistant director of training and development at the American Society for Gastrointestinal Endoscopy, explains it this way: “I find that by being involved, I’ve gained a wealth of knowledge. There are times when I have felt overwhelmed with everything going on; I’m currently involved with the Alliance for Continuing Education in the Health Professions Almanac, the Medical Specialty Society Education Committee, and the Alliance Award Committee. I’m thankful that I was given the opportunity, but it took time to get used to these responsibilities and to figure out how to best manage my time. I recently accepted a new position and had to learn the duties of my new job while maintaining my responsibilities with the Alliance.
“It was hard juggling everything at once,” he says. “I had to think about what I wanted out of my volunteerism and then put together a game plan for how to accomplish this. Moving forward, I put aside a couple hours a week just to focus on my volunteerism, which has proven to be well worth it.”
Build Your Community
You know that guy who can strike up a conversation with anyone about anything? I’m not that guy. I’m terrible at networking. As an introvert, I lack the internal mechanism that drives people to seek out personal connections, but I can’t get enough of ideas.
This is an important distinction. Extroverts talk to people about things, while introverts talk about things with people. This fundamental difference in the way people approach a subject is responsible for a lot of awkward moments. As Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, says, “Introverts living under the Extroversion Ideal are like women in a man’s world, discounted because of a trait that goes to the core of who they are. Extroversion is an enormously appealing personality style, but we’ve turned it into an oppressive standard to which most of us feel we must conform.”
The good news is that you can overcome this awkwardness when volunteering. As 2012 ACEHP President Damon Marquis has said, “The deep-down secret—I am actually fairly socially introverted. Volunteering allows me to meet people, get engaged, and have an impact.” Volunteerism gives extroverts people to network with, while providing introverts with a topic to get excited about. What is created by this marriage of approaches is a community, and communities are powerful things.
Communities and social networks help shape who we are. As University of California, San Diego, Professor James Fowler says, “Your friends who live far away have just as big an impact on your behavior as friends who live next door.”
What you find in a volunteer group is a cadre of motivated experts. It’s OK if you don’t feel like an expert. The social pressure will help you get up to speed fast.
Have you ever been blindsided by a new rule or regulation that affected your job? What if, instead of being caught off guard, you were in a position to explain the rules to other people? Volunteers are given access to cutting-edge information and the insights of fellow experts. They’re in a position to influence the narrative by crafting messages, policies, or guidelines with industrywide impact.
As Art Arellano, professional education manager at the AAGL (originally known as the American Association of Gynecologic Laparoscopists), explains, “Now more than ever, you have to be self-generating, and I believe volunteering provides the opportunity to address issues we encounter in CME. I attended the Alliance Conference in 2010 where by chance I met Darlene Oliver boarding a plane to Los Angeles. Darlene would eventually become the president of the Southern California Medical Education Council and play an integral role in electing me to the board. My experience behind the scenes was invaluable when preparing materials for the . AAGL had all the elements, I just didn’t know how to tell their story ... and now I do.”
I’ve had a similar experience. I recently joined a committee and was confronted with the fact that I was under-informed about the Physician Payment Sunshine Act. Perhaps this wouldn’t have been a problem if it wasn’t the job of this group to draft a formal response to the measure.
The social pressure and responsibility forced me outside of my comfort zone. I began to read everything that I could find and call those who had written similar opinion pieces. After just a few weeks, my knowledge had advanced considerably, but the thought of disappointing my peers is what motivated me to action and set my expectations higher than they would have been if I didn’t know they were relying on me.
Keep on Pushing
All it takes is a little push. Maybe that push comes from inside you. More often it comes from a mentor and is usually based upon what you have to offer the community (which can be enough of a reason). Wherever it comes from, it has benefited me and those I know in ways I never would have imagined. It can do the same for you.
If I haven’t yet convinced you in this article that giving back is a good idea, well, you should see the earlier drafts. This is the first article I’ve written for a magazine. To help myself, I worked on my writing, reached out to colleagues, and studied articles by journalists I admire. I would not have done these things had I not committed to a deadline and had my idea accepted. It’s amazing what you learn when you venture outside your comfort zone.
When he’s not volunteering, Jacob Coverstone serves as director of education with the International Society for Magnetic Resonance in Medicine. He also won the ACEHP 2012 Great Ideas Award, Member Specialty Section, for his contributions in the field of continuing medical education.
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