Obligation contemplation: why it's OK for volunteers to say "no"

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As a volunteer, writing a blog which is often focused on volunteering, and finding other discourse about volunteering interesting to read, I've picked up on one big thing. The rhetoric attached to volunteering, and volunteering-focused communications, is very affirmative-focused. We are attracted to the idea of saying "yes" to something, and of receiving further positives in return, and use the same principles to attract others to our voluntary causes. I've done it plenty myself: take this post, for instance, which is the most viewed of anything I've written. Bust those January blues! Embrace new learning opportunities! Get out there, you can do it! 

I don't regret anything I've written about volunteering in positive and affirmative terms: I believed in it when I wrote it, and I still believe in it now. What I think is interesting, however, is that all of this positive rhetoric so often chooses to gloss over the paradox that can be one of the most empowering parts of volunteering: the fact that volunteers can say "no" as readily as they can say "yes". And, actually, that ability to say "no" could be the key to sustaining the ideal volunteering experience we are so keen to advertise.

Volunteering, in a role and environment which works for you, is an almost addictive experience. You feel good about helping others (and probably making them feel good too), and you are empowered by the fact that all of this good is coming out of personal choice. Of course you want to keep feeling these things! We often talk about being "bitten by the RDA bug", and how our volunteers' affinities with their groups grow and grow over time. These are all good, wonderful, things. The ability to say "no", however, and to turn down experiences which don't work for you as a volunteer, is essential for developing a healthy, long term relationship with your voluntary organisation. It's simple enough as a concept, but in practice there is a lot of crossover between the type of person who is likely to throw themselves into an involved and extended relationship with something like an RDA group, and the sort of person who finds the "no"s difficult. 

I'm here to advocate for a balance of yes and no. Like plenty of other volunteers in and out of RDA, I have a full time job. I enjoy my work (for the most part), but, after a couple of periods of burnout caused by overloading my calendar, I've learned to balance my salaried duties better so that free time can be, well, free. A solid percentage of this "free" time is taken up by doing, planning, or thinking about RDA in some capacity. The irony is that my one regular day of coaching per week, plus social media posts here and there, takes up roughly the same amount of head space as my desk job because I care so much about it. The two aren't worlds apart: they both have an intrinsic focus on creating opportunity for groups of people who need a bit of extra support and/or encouragement.  But, although I plan to stay within the same sector long term, my job is a shorter term relationship than my relationship with RDA. I've already been with my RDA group almost three times as long as I've been in my current job. As such, if work benefits from the "marathon, not sprint", approach, RDA needs to be viewed as a sort of ultra marathon, which is run with bursts of sprinting (as I'm not there five days a week) but over a longer period of time.

As such, I am fiercely protective of what I refer to as my "volunteer's prerogative". It doesn't mean I give myself carte blanche to do whatever I please because I happen not to be being paid to be at the stables. It does mean that I keep reminding myself that actually if it doesn't work for me to cover that other coach's lesson, or to go along to that evening fundraiser, or to stay an extra hour on top of a seven hour yard day in the cold and dark, it's OK to say no. I'm not easily fazed by teaching new riders, but if I wasn't comfortable with fulfilling a request for coaching, perhaps if I didn't feel suitably clued up about the rider's condition and needs, "no" would be OK there too. Not wanting to commit to attending competitions and saying "no" to that is also fine, although if the riders I coached would be missing out on a wanted experience because of that decision, it would be reasonable to reassess whether they would be better placed with another coach. Nevertheless, the right to say "no" is always there.

It's also important that a volunteer's prerogative is used reasonably. It isn't acceptable, for instance, for a volunteer to show up 30 minutes late to a lesson they are facilitating or assisting, or for a coach to favour one rider over others in their class, because they are volunteers. Although it is anyone's right to say that they can't or don't want to cover a particular session, or go to a particular event, it's less acceptable to commit to either and then pull out last minute, as opposed to saying "no" from the outset. Committed, passionate volunteers will always typically do more than a basic set of volunteering guidelines will request, but that doesn't mean that the guidelines shouldn't be there to ensure a baseline of mutual expectation. 

For many personalities I've encountered during my own travels through the world of volunteering, the idea of constantly going that little bit further in your voluntary service is motivating in its own right. When that extra mile becomes a step too far, for whatever reason, there's no shame in switching to a lower gear. I've taken myself all the way down to neutral (no RDA at all for several months) before, when I realised that coaching, volunteering, and even travelling to and from the stables was taking up more time than was ideal when I was approaching my university finals. I felt awful doing it at the time, because I felt as if I was letting down both my group and my own sense of pride in keeping so many plates spinning, but in hindsight I don't regret it in the slightest. RDA waited for me, and would have waited longer if I'd needed it to. Being able to turn down my commitment temporarily made my relationship with my group better and healthier in the long run.

"No", of course, works both ways (and that's another reason why clear communication and guidelines are so useful). If volunteers are able to have the final say on whether or not they want to volunteer, RDA groups (and any other volunteer-powered organisation) need to have equivalent final say powers for the duties they need volunteers for, and in some cases whether or not specific volunteers are suited to those duties. This could be in the initial stages of a volunteer-organisation relationship: a prospective volunteer is superlatively enthusiastic, but only available on a day of the week when there are no RDA sessions. It could be small scale within the course of a session: a volunteer is better suited to working with one participant or horse over another, or needs to be redeployed to some yard jobs because there are more volunteers than are needed for a session that week. It could, in more difficult circumstances, mean that an organisation has to say no to a volunteer continuing their voluntary service, if guidelines have not been followed appropriately or if the volunteer is not (or is no longer) carrying out their duties in a way which is safe or in keeping with the values of the organisation. "No" only works when it's used sensitively, and used by both sides of that relationship.

Reason and accountability have been key themes in my approach to RDA this year, whether I am embracing new challenges or declining other opportunities or commitments. It's important for us all to be able to articulate why we want to turn something down, even if it's only for ourselves. For those in voluntary positions of responsibility (like coaches or trustees), I think it's important to be open with reasoning where possible. Even the most generous of volunteers could easily have compelling reasons for not wanting that additional task or opportunity right now, even if they are happy to continue throwing themselves into their existing duties. Although it might be helpful if they did, not everyone will wear their heart (and therefore their reasons for turning something down) on their sleeve. The RDA community is pretty great at accepting difficulties which aren't obvious, within the confines of their own non-negotiables; this isn't so different.

In recent weeks, I have thought often of this freedom of choice in the context of RDA groups restarting. I said in this recent post that there was an egalitarianism in the way RDA was locked down: everyone had to do it, and nobody had to work out an individual response or policy for their own group or class. Now restarting is more difficult, more fiddly, and more emotive, and it has never been more important to remember that nobody is being asked or required to do anything they don't want to do. This, within reason, is how RDA has always been. In some cases, it might be that there are ways of restarting which require a "yes" outside a group or individual's regular comfort zone. The ideal might well be a set of positive, go-getting, innovation driven (and safety conscious) volunteers, but I'd feel less confident in the hands of someone feeling they had to pretend to be that way rather than actually feeling it. As good as innovation might be, the same prerogative is still there if it's a yes too far. 

Personally, I've hovered between wanting and not wanting to do things, and said a definite no to a couple, along the path of mission RDA restart; most importantly, I know why I have made the decisions I've made, and what I want for myself and for my group in making them. I am lucky. There are plenty within RDA specifically who are temporarily unable to follow their wishes: groups with venue issues, who have no riders eligible to restart under current guidelines, or who only work with schools; shielding volunteers and participants; participants who are waiting for the green light from their group (which could be on hold for a huge number of reasons, some less obvious than others). This is an entire essay question of its own, but ultimately makes an example of why groups sometimes have to say no, even to the well meaning or the well meant.

Remembering that your "no"s are your own can be difficult at the best of times. Whether it's a fear of missing out, a sense of unease in your own decisions, or a straightforward disagreement with the people saying "yes", it remains important for volunteers in any capacity to keep a handle on what is right for them... even if that means distancing themselves from the context of others doing differently. The acute awkwardness of the times we live in could be a great foundation for shifting the culture and rhetoric of volunteering: we can keep all those yesses going, keep celebrating the good news stories and seizing of opportunities, and simultaneously open up honest and complex discussions about the times that "no" is a better fit. 

Saying "yes" to RDA volunteering was one of the best decisions I've ever made, but knowing I can say "no" every now and again is what's going to keep it a good decision in the long run. If that's the cost of my free time, I think that's a pretty good deal.


1st Birthday Giveaway: ENTER NOW!

My blog is a year old. What started last summer as a bit of an experiment has produced more than fifty individual posts, many hours of reflection, connection, and discussion, and been read more than 27,000 times: modest numbers by modern "influencer" standards, but exciting given that I wasn't sure many people would be that interested in what I had to say (and all of those views can't just be my mum). I have valued and enjoyed the conversations that have sprung up as a result of people reading and sharing the blog, and have become acquainted with people with whom I may never have otherwise communicated. I've also enjoyed being able to share the power of RDA beyond our immediate community.

To say a huge thank you to everyone who has read, shared, and otherwise supported Coach India's Blog, I am running a giveaway! (UK only) Fill in the entry form and share this blog post on social media: Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram (stories) before 1st August to be in with a chance of winning a £10 donation to your choice of RDA group; an RDA Nationals "2020: the missing year" polo shirt from Wainwright Screenprint (your choice of size and colour); an RDA pin badge and a horse print face covering.