Case scenarios in volunteering

The following case scenarios are to help you think about what you would do of these happened when you volunteer. Read them and see what ideas we have on how to handle the situation.

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Scenario #1

You are volunteering at an elementary school. You are enjoying the experience but sometimes you have a hard time understanding what the teacher is saying so you use the translator tool on your phone. One week, the site supervisor brings you into her office and tells you that it is rude to text and play on your phone when you should be helping with the kids. How do you respond?

Key Points:

  • Learn the policy about using phones. Many organizations do not allow phone use even for translation purposes.
  • If you want to use your phone for translating, be sure to check-in with your site supervisor before you do it.
  • If you are not allowed to use your phone here are some other options:
    • Ask people to speak more slowly.
    • Write down the words you don’t understand and look them up later.
    • Remember that there isn’t an expectation that you understand everything that is being said. Try to get the general meaning of what is being said and ask for clarification if necessary.

Scenario #2

You have started a volunteer position with an organization. After a few weeks of volunteering, you realize you don’t like it. You are not enjoying what you are doing and you are thinking of not going back. What do you do?

Key Points:

  • Talk to your supervisor about what you are not enjoying. It is possible that there could be a solution to the problem OR perhaps another position that more appropriate for you.
  • If there is no possibility of continuing a relationship, it is important that you provide some professional communication about your plan to leave the volunteer position. Two weeks notice is a reasonable amount.
  • If you are uncomfortable with having that conversation directly with your supervisor, you can contact the Center for Community Engaged Learning staff to help mediate and/or intervene about why you do not wish to continue the volunteer activity.

Scenario #3

You are a volunteer at an organization and every time you go, you sit in the back of the class waiting for instructions from the teacher on what to do. One day the teacher says that you are not helping and that you need to take more initiative. How do you respond?

Key Points:

  • In the United States, it is both culturally appropriate and sometimes expected that volunteers take initiative in volunteering and not wait to be told what to do.
  • This is also sometimes a matter of organizational capacity - staff are often balancing multiple responsibilities and do not have time to provide direction for every volunteer.
  • Think about your own cultural expectations around authority. If you want direction, be sure to ask for it at the beginning or see if your supervisor is willing to do a check-in with you at the beginning of every shift to explain expectations.
  • This volunteer experience might be out of your comfort zone. That’s okay! See it is an opportunity for learning and growth

Scenario #4

You’re really excited to start your volunteering, but when you tell your friends where you are going, they say it is in a “bad neighborhood” and are worried it’s not safe. What do you say to them, and what do you do?

Key Points:

  • Ask your friend why they have this belief that it is a bad neighborhood. Is it based on firsthand experience, or the result of biased representations of this community?
  • Think about how many students from the University of Minnesota participate in volunteer work every year in neighborhoods all over the Twin Cities without anything bad happening. And remember that assaults, robberies, and other crimes take place on campus as well – it can happen anywhere.
  • Take reasonable precautions to protect yourself wherever you are. Maybe you had a friend who wants to volunteer with you. If you go alone and have to wait for a bus after dark, don’t be afraid to ask someone from the organization to wait with you at the bus stop.

Scenario #5

You are volunteering in an elementary school. One day you hear two students talking. One of them says “Did you see Jimmy today? He looked so gay!” The other student agrees and refers to Jimmy using a homophobic slur. How do you respond?

Key Points:

  • There is a lot of slang in the English language. If English is your second language, you may not know when someone is saying something that is mean. If you think that someone is being bullied, be sure to talk with your supervisor about what happened.
  • If you feel comfortable addressing the situation, approach the situation as a learning moment for the students. Ask them what these words mean to them and why they are using them in this way. Let them know that it’s not okay to make fun of other students or talk that way.

Scenario #6

You volunteer at a homeless shelter and are getting to know the people who stay there. One of the people you meet loves to read. One day, he mentions that his birthday is next week but he probably won’t be getting any presents. Is it okay for you to buy him a book as a birthday gift?

Key Points:

  • In the U.S., organizations often have rules about volunteers not giving money or gifts directly to people.
  • Ask your supervisor if there is a policy. You can tell him that you hope he has a great birthday and maybe make him a card.

Scenario #7

You are volunteering at an organization. You have enjoyed your time, but the semester is almost over and you would like to end your volunteering. What would your next steps be?

Key Points:

  • Organizations appreciate volunteers who stay with them for long term. If you do plan on leaving, it is respectful to give a 2 week notice (email is fine) and ask if they have anything that is required of you.  
  • If you would like a letter of reference, now would be an appropriate time.
  • It is also nice (but not required) to write a thank you letter and include your reflections on the volunteering experience.