• Five Reasons Why I’m Pro ‘Pro Bono’

    One NYC mom argues that volunteer work should be as valued as jobs that pay.

    By Lorraine Duffy Merkl

    I just quit my job.

    “Who would do such a thing in this economy?” I can already hear someone out there saying.

    I suffer from no loss of income, as my position was voluntary.

    “Oh,” I can now imagine someone else groaning, “it wasn’t a real job.” That wouldn’t be the first time I’ve experienced such offensiveness.

    I work as a freelance journalist and advertising copywriter—mostly off-site. On occasion when I have worked on-site, permanent employees (perhaps wary of their job status) like to take my temperature about the state of the freelance market. I tell them the nature of the beast is feast or famine, but I’m never at a loss for something to do as I also work gratis for school and charitable causes that are important to me.

    From time to time, I’ve been confronted by these temporary co-workers trying to show off how busy and important and prestigious they are by making snarky remarks about volunteer work being the playground of “housewives who like to bake.” Apparently they never read the New York Times article about the millions of dollars raised for schools by parents—and it didn’t come from selling cupcakes.

    Volunteers are not usually “housewives who like to bake,” but, more often, current or former executives who generously give their time and skills.

    And therein lies my issue: A job is a job is a job…even if there is no payment involved. I take that back; even if there is no money involved. There is always payment far beyond simply knowing one is helping others. Actually, there are at least five that I’ve personally experienced:

    Building self-esteem.

    Each year, for six years, at my son Luke’s grammar school, I along with two other mothers ran the second most profitable fundraiser. Our role as chairpersons required us to coordinate and distribute hundreds of orders for wrapping paper, gifts and chocolates, as well as supervising up to fifty volunteers, and of course, accounting for the funds. Being part of this effort made all the difference when I was between freelance gigs and my novel was being turned down by many a publisher.

    Gaining experience that can help to build your resume.

    When Luke got to high school, pro bono staffers were recruited for the reopening of its bookstore. I got to use visual merchandising skills I didn’t even know that I had, and as part of the group I turned an eyesore into a place our boys would be proud was in their school, and where parents would be inclined to shop while visiting campus.

    Enjoying the social aspect.

    Now that my daughter Meg is transferring to a new school, I resigned my aforementioned position on her current school’s Parent/Teacher Organization, which is a fairly new entity in itself. Like many a start-up, as original members we figured we’d do the best we could with what little we had, and ended up throwing the school’s first gala that garnered funds far beyond our highest expectations. As the other mothers and I are all in different fields, we probably would never have crossed paths in the private sector. It was a pleasure to serve with people who have a strong work ethic and know how to get things done. I also created friendships with people I otherwise might not have gotten the opportunity to know.

    Showing gratitude for what you have by giving back.

    Once, while waiting for my husband on 92ndand Madison, I overheard a woman on her cell, irate over some menial duties she had been asked to perform: “I offered to help and they want me to lick stamps… I’ve dined at the White House for heaven’s sake.” Sometimes organizations need to keep the donation ball rolling through old-fashioned grunt work: I have manned the cash register at my share of book fairs and bake sales, as well as addressed, stuffed, and stamped a truckload of event envelopes. Humbling, yes; but a chance to enjoy lively conversation (to offset the rote activity) and a sense of purpose with like-minded people.

    Getting out of your comfort zone.

    Through my husband’s association with Legal Aid, I got involved with its Civil Support Division. Helping with the planning and execution of the group’s fundraising endeavors, I was exposed to the extent to which the poor can be intimidated, taken advantage of, and railroaded if not for the professionals who fight on their behalf.

    Recently, while browsing at the E.A.T. gift shop on Madison Avenue, I came across a notepad with a retro-looking woman and the caption: Stop me before I volunteer again. One of the things I learned from my many years of doing service: Nothing can stop me.

    Lorraine Duffy Merkl is a freelance writer in NYC and author of the novel, FAT CHICK. Learn more about her writing at lorraineduffymerkl.com.