Pro Bono Advice: Be Like the Watermelon

Marketers often turn to pro-bono or charity work to give back to the community, to use their skills for good or even just to get experience they can parlay into paying work.  I can’t tell you why you should volunteer.  However, if you do volunteer, I advise you to be like a watermelon: develop a thick but porous skin.

I am not even remotely above using pictures of babies to get you to read my blog

The watermelon analogy stems (sorry) from the realities of charities and not-for-profits.  Most often, people work or volunteer in this sector because they have strong feelings about the subject, whether it’s the environment, religion, an illness or civil rights.  Moreover, these people often have a difficult connection to that subject.  This connection both makes the work more meaningful and more difficult.

You need a thick skin to take on some of the more uncomfortable issues, yet you still need to let some of that discomfort in to remind you of why you take on the work.

I have volunteered with the Stop Abuse Campaign, which does pretty much what it says on the tin, on and off for about five years.  In that time, I’ve worked with many stakeholders who are child or domestic abuse survivors.  As someone who hasn’t experienced abuse (thankfully), I find it awe-inspiring and often downright intimidating to work with those who have.  Frankly, I often have to tune out the subject matter to attend to workaday subjects such as information architecture or communications planning.  So much of what we do is business as usual, something that would not differ much if we were developing a website or campaign for a consumer good or service.  Childhood trauma or not, website visitors still have to know where they’re going when they click on a navigation bar link.

That said, I find it important to keep reminding myself over why it matters–and whom it helps–when I work on the Campaign.  Sure, I have a professional responsibility to choose the more effective label name between “advocate” and “speak out.”  However, I also have to remember that those incremental clicks (for the right label) have an actual impact in helping people.

As a result, sometimes I need to let the subject matter–as awful as it is–get to me.  Not every time, mind you; that would prevent me from picking up the phone.  Letting the subject matter sink in helps when we, as a team, reach a point of debate.  In the for-profit world, an impasse about a non-critical decision might result in someone saying “we’re not trying to cure cancer here.”  Yet in the pro-bono world, we often are, or something of approximately equal urgency.

When we reach an impasse, I try to imagine a victim or someone who loves a victim trying to make sense of it all.  That brief brush with the pain these people feel gives me the impetus to make a more informed decision.

In turn, I encourage you to put on your watermelon skin and help out for a cause that calls to you.

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