It’s 5am on a Sunday in October, it’s 35F, and I am handing out beer to sweaty athletes in an alcohol branded t-shirt that I have put on over my down jacket. I am volunteering! But who on earth am I volunteering for? To this day, four years later, I have no idea.
Backing up a few months… In 2013 my company was approached by a nonprofit called SweatEquity for a partnership. SweatEquity promised to “empower athletes to raise money for charity by participating in athletic events”. Frankly, I had no idea what that meant, but my company was into it. And I was (am!) interested in any program that had a charitable aspect, particularly one that allowed me to leverage my giving through a company match. I immediately signed up.
At the first meeting, things looked promising. SweatEquity had a swag deal with Pearlizumi, and by participating, you got free gear. My company would match all volunteer hours with an equivalent financial contribution to the charity (which was standard policy) and would also pay the entrance fees for the races. All I had to do was participate in, or volunteer for, a certain number of races. Accumulating more hours led to greater discounts on gear and, theoretically, more money for charity.
Within a week or two I received my free swag. Nice! I was committed.
But as the race season began, my doubts crept in. Volunteering at ANY race wasn’t an option; there were certain ones that were “partners” with SweatEquity. Some were a three hour drive away. Most were on weekends that I already had travel plans. In total, there were only about five options. As the spring turned into summer, I had not completed any of my “race” hours although I had logged many other volunteer hours for my regular charities.
To facilitate the program, each of those hours was carefully tracked on a paper form (complete with tax ID numbers for the charities and signatures proving their legitimacy), scanned, and sent to SweatEquity. The form was a pain. Every time I asked for a signature I felt like I was on criminal probation. I had to remember to bring it to my volunteer events. I had to remember to get it signed. But I was not dissuaded! I was going to leverage the heck out of this opportunity, logistics be damned!
In August, I still needed to find a race to volunteer at that worked for my schedule. The only “partner” race left that I could attend was the Rock n’ Roll Marathon in the beginning of October. Sign me up!
SweatEquity instructed me to arrive at the race at 5am and find their tent. Easy enough. Or maybe not. When I arrived, the park at the start and end of the race was jammed. People were everywhere setting up tents, unloading supplies, readying the podiums, etc. It was mayhem. But that’s okay – that’s how all races are. And that’s also how a lot of volunteer events are; poorly coordinated and logistically challenged. I get it.
As I wandered around, though, I began to get annoyed. It was 5:30 in the morning and I had yet to find my people. There were no signs. No one wearing shirts. Twenty tents. So I started going to each one and asking if they were with SweatEquity. No? No? Not you either? Now it was 6am, an hour after I had arrived, and I was freezing. It was 35F. The runners were warming up, but I was just getting frustrated.
Finally, I walked up to the last tent. It was huge. People were unloading massive boxes and the tent was labelled “BEER”. Everyone inside it was wearing giant white t-shirts that said Michelob Ultra on them. It was a long shot, which is why I had left them to the end, but I approached and asked if they were with SweatEquity. As you know already from my intro… they were. And they were furious with me for being an hour late. A t-shirt was tossed my way and I was told to hurry up and start unloading. Oh my.
I have volunteered at countless places. I have unloaded many, many boxes. I have sorted food and clothing and sealed envelopes and handed out peas at soup kitchens. I am not against menial labor as a volunteer activity. But this felt different.
As I unloaded box after box, and as I opened and served beer after beer to the marathon finishers, I had a minor existential breakdown.
Did this count as volunteering? Who on earth was benefitting from this? Michelob Ultra? The Rock n’ Roll Marathon? The charities that the Rock n’ Roll Marathon (tenuously) supported? SweatEquity? Would the world be a worse place if I had not showed up that morning, the beer company got less advertising, and fewer runners got a post-race drink? I mean, this wasn’t even water! It was beer! I love beer, but come on. I was freezing cold, I looked like a cross between the Michelin man and the women who serve vodka shots at bars, and I was creating zero value for our community. What a drag.
Now I could end the story there; it’s plenty aggravating enough as it is. But I’d hate to leave out the best part.
Around 8 am, just as my shift was ending, I served up my 4,324nd beer. Okay, I don’t really know how many I’d served. But it felt like that many. Pop top, hand to crowd. Pop top, hand to crowd. Repeat, repeat, repeat. But this time, when I looked up, I made eye contact with an old ex-boyfriend. He had just finished the race and was celebrating. And as he locked eyes with me his eyes widened, his eyebrows raised, and his head tilted back before transforming into a look of utter distain and pity. Then he shook his head slowly, as if to ask himself how I had fallen so far, before he turned and melted into the crowd. I used to be an engineer, his look had said, and now I was just a beer girl. So sad.
Except, really, it was hilarious. He probably still thinks I work for Michelob and frankly, it makes me laugh every time I think about it! I hope he went and told everyone he knew about my tragic fall from grace. Ha ha!
But let’s get back to the point.
This was not a volunteer event. It was a total sham. The entire premise of SweatEquity made no sense; introducing a middle man to the process of making donations just created more overhead and added no value. I didn’t need them to find volunteer activities; I had plenty already that were actually meaningful. I didn’t need them to facilitate my corporate match program; my company already made that pretty easy.
The only benefit that they provided was the forced realization that my time is best used serving organizations that I KNOW have a good mission and that align with my values.
That morning was a first-hand experience with drift, and with reacting to asks made by others versus making my own plan.
As far as I can tell, SweatEquity no longer exists. Which makes total sense. There was no business plan and no greater purpose. It was dead on arrival.
But the lesson I learned is alive and well today. And I am much happier for it.
What was your worst volunteering experience? Leave me a comment so we can commiserate!