Hosting meetups, serving on nonprofit boards, and volunteering in general can be fun and rewarding, but if it feels like a full-time job, you’re probably doing it wrong. As one of the organizers of Refresh DC—a monthly event that brings together web designers and developers in the Washington, DC area—I’ve had countless discussions with people asking for advice on how to run a meetup without sacrificing all of your free time. Like anything worth doing, volunteering comes with challenges. Time management can be a struggle. Logistics, the key to running any sort of event smoothly, can cause headaches. But in my experience, the pros far outweigh the cons.
Trust me, I know
For the past ten years, Refresh DC, a group that I help run with Jason Garber and Rochelle Pennington, has hosted events every month, giving everyone a great opportunity to share and learn from one another. I first attended in 2006 after moving to the DC area. I had started a job and was looking for an outlet to grow professionally and meet new people. Refresh DC let me do both. In 2008, I gave my first presentation to a packed house. By that time, events had become a little less regular, a little more sporadic. Refresh needed help—so I stepped in to speak and later to help organize. Previously, I was on the board of a nonprofit organization. It ended up being a very time-consuming, complicated process, full of internal politics. I didn’t want that for Refresh DC. I wanted my time to be respected and valuable.
Volunteering can be as involved or as casual as you want it to be, given your personal constraints and time-management skills. I run Whistle Studios. My fellow organizers have full-time jobs. We have lives and commitments outside of our professional interests. So, how do we do it all?
1. Set realistic time limits
I put aside roughly five hours every three months for Refresh DC—that’s right, not five hours a week or month, but every three months! I’ve found that this is my ideal time commitment to get plenty done without it taking over my work (or personal) life.
How much time are you willing to set aside on a regular basis and what would you give up to make this work? Set limitations and fully communicate them with your fellow volunteers.
2. Find the right crew
It’s important to be around people that you enjoy and can learn from, especially if you’re giving up your free time. Would you grab drinks with the people you’ll be volunteering with? Would you hang out with them on a weekend? Can you learn from one another?
3. Get the most out of it
I’ve met tons of new people and vastly improved my public speaking abilities—among other skills. Making introductions that led to new hires. Growing your network. Seeing recent grads become rockstar designers, developers, bloggers, and public speakers. There are warm and fuzzy reasons for volunteering, too, like being at the group’s 100th event and reconnecting with folks who attended the very first.
What will you get out of it? Maybe it’s a new skill, an opportunity to meet new people, or find your next job. And, perhaps most importantly, does it align with your passion and interests? If it does—great! If not, why are you doing it?
4. Stay focused
With Refresh DC, we focus on two things above all: the quality and relevancy of the talk and hosting it at venue that’s accessible for people living and working in the Washington, DC area. Food and drinks are nice to have, when possible. But the talk and venue are what make our events so good. So we focus on what’s important, and because of that, people attend and contribute year after year.
5. Keep it simple
Refresh DC isn’t a nonprofit or a for-profit. It’s a professional organization, but no money exchanges hands at any time. It’s very grassroots. Events are free to attendees—we get companies to host and provide food and drinks. It’s a forum for people to share what they’re passionate about and to give talks. We don’t have the money to fly speakers in, but we have coordinated with people who were from out of town to present in the past.
That said, when money’s in the picture—and events do come at a cost—all stakes and expectations get raised. Keeping everything free makes things simple. That’s worked for us and made things manageable.
6. Ask for help
Every month at our events, we ask for help hosting, sponsoring food, and speaking at future events. We recently emailed our list of nearly 2,000 people about a call for speakers and had over 20 talks proposed in a few hours. It’s amazing how many people want to help, but don’t know what you need help with. Just ask.
7. Most importantly, follow up
It’s easy to get excited about new ideas for your group when meeting, but what you do afterwards is just as important. You have to evaluate, prioritize and follow up on action items. If something still sounds great the next day—it’s probably worth doing. If not, forget it and move on.
Find your groove and enjoy it
Volunteering is only painful if you let it be. Set firm limitations for yourself and communicate them clearly to your team. Make realistic commitments and follow up on them. Ask for help. Keep things simple. Stay focused. You should do the same with any organization that moves you. Just remember to focus on the important things and let go of things that don’t matter—kinda like you should in real life, too.
For me, volunteering has always been important, and I’ve managed to make it work with some smart maneuvering. After reading this, I hope you can, too. And if you’re in the area, come check out the next Refresh DC!