Years ago, I volunteered for an animal rescue. I adopted my dog from them, they asked for help, and I just fell into it. It was rewarding to help the animals, and I was new to that world. After a while, though, it wasn’t fun.
The director of the rescue was abusive to adopters and volunteers; and ultimately, was dishonest about things that were line-in-the-sand issues for me. By the end of my time with that group, I was extremely stressed, and ultimately, disgusted. I probably would have stepped away from rescue altogether if it hadn’t been for the fact that I was morally committed to placing several dozen hoarded dogs that the rescue director had reneged on helping. My dear friend, Victoria, also a volunteer for that group, and I talked for hours about what to do, and we finally, VERY unhappily, decided to form our own rescue. We did it with real reluctance because we were burned out and had terrible hangovers from our experience with this other group. However, we’d tried everything to find people to help these other dogs, and ultimately, we were all they had.
We talked some more, and we decided how our rescue would be different. The most important principle we agreed upon was that we were going to be supportive and protective of our volunteers, and we weren’t going to engage in widespread trash-talking of the group we left. We contacted our friends who were volunteers with the group and explained to them that we were leaving and starting a group to place those dogs. We didn’t need to say more to many of the volunteers. I had spent too many hours on the phone with them over the course of our work, smoothing over hurt feelings because of things the director had said or done. We were flattered and touched that many of them chose to join our group. We were less flattered when other people, volunteers whom we had dealt with on many occasions, seemed to believe what the director was saying about us, which were some pretty vile and outlandish lies. That hurt a lot at the time, but we pushed on because we had dozens of (hoarded) dogs who urgently needed our help.
We kept our promise about keeping things drama-free. And you know what? More than a decade later, the group has a core of volunteers that has remained steady. In fact, when I stepped down as a director after I adopted, another long-term volunteer stepped up and she and Victoria have worked seamlessly. That’s almost unheard of in rescue, where burnout after a few years is a norm for volunteers. The difference is, I feel, that we all share the same values, we all treat each other with respect, and the rescue directors protect their volunteers as much as possible from the immense sadness and constant drama that comes with doing rescue.
And that brings me to the broader issue, which is that it’s important to remember that working for a cause you care about does not have to be a toxic and traumatic experience. It shouldn’t make you think less of yourself. For example, supporting social justice does not mean that you have to participate in a massive beatdown of someone else on Tumblr. Volunteering for a church fundraiser doesn’t mean you have to tolerate snide remarks from the project coordinator about your level of contribution. It just doesn’t, and it never has.
Your challenge is to find ways to help your causes without losing your sense of self. For example, if you care about social justice and you enjoy social media, you could volunteer to help one of the many worthy social justice organizations with its online communications. You can do extremely important work that way. (For example, Twitter has helped to raise mainstream awareness with hashtags like #YESALLWOMEN and #NOTYOURASIANSIDEKICK.) If you really want to help at your church, but the fundraiser director is monstrous, ask your pastor if there are other ways you can help.
You have a choice. Find a well-defined cause with a clear framework of operation, and get in touch. In my experience, unless a charitable enterprise is carefully defined, it is far too vulnerable to being co-opted by toxic people with strong personalities. And trust me when I say that the toxic ones are always the last ones standing.
As someone who worked with other volunteers to achieve amazing things, it always appalls me when people are treated badly in the name of a good cause. Most volunteers only have a limited amount of time and energy, and it’s terrible to see them driven away from a movement or burnt out because they believed enough in a cause that they tried to help. And mark my words, the people who drive others to leave a cause are bullies of the worst order: they have simply chosen high-minded people who are reluctant to walk away as their victims, which makes them really loathsome specimens.
Don’t give those people power. Don’t let them steal your energy or belief in a cause. There are plenty of ways to help; you just need to find the right one.