Trends: Volunteers Gone Wild

Infighting! Back-stabbing! Meltdowns! In Philly these days, lending a helping hand isn’t what it used to be

But sometimes, in our fervor to do the best job possible, an event that seems simple becomes as complex and multifaceted as last year’s Summer Olympics opening ceremony in Beijing. “I wish I could find the string of e-mails I got last year when I volunteered for the class Halloween project,” says a Main Line mom of an eight-year-old. “First of all, way too many people always sign up, and one of the women is a control freak, and cheap as they come! The cheap woman went out and bought a few things, and wanted to collect, like, 86 cents from each person as reimbursement. Another woman went out and bought some items, and said we each would owe her $3, but told us all to keep it, because it was her treat.

“That made the other woman really upset, because it made her look cheap,” she sighs. “The whole thing was so sad and pathetic, and all sorts of stupid stuff went back and forth. In the end, I showed up the day of the project, and there were so many mothers that there was nothing at all to do.”

PERHAPS THE SINGLE most important thing that volunteers all around the suburbs report is that while the rewards of volunteering outweigh the tsuris, you don’t want to be too good at your event. When a friend moved to a Delaware County community six years ago, he decided to get involved in the annual neighborhood picnic, and went to a meeting where he found himself the only guy in a hen party of stalwart elderly ladies. Phew, he thought — he’d likely end up hoisting a few cases of soda or flipping burgers. Unluckily for him, the grannies were ready to off-load organizing the event.

“You,” said one of the biddies, pointing a steely finger at my terrified friend. “You’d do a good job at running the picnic. You’re in charge!” Four years later, he still is. “Once you’re identified as a Yes Person, they get you for everything,” seconds the West Mount Airy mom who barely survived the preschool auction. “There are always doers and non-doers, and they pick you out quickly.”

One super-energetic Main Line mom became the default organizer of no fewer than a half-dozen events for a community group she and her husband joined when they first moved to the area. (Her mistake was telling her fellow volunteers that she’d worked as a wedding planner in the 1990s.) Inevitably, the group’s cocktail party was held at her home.

“The RSVP list was enormous,” she shudders. “We had all these people coming, and it needed to be a nice day out. And there weren’t just thunderstorms that afternoon; there were tornadoes.” An hour before the party — as the hostess and her husband schlepped glassware and booze, arranged flowers and candles, and helped the caterers set up — the clouds parted. It turned into a clear and gorgeous night, and people stayed for hours. However, her guests still found fault with the event. “Everyone complained about the caterer, because it was more expensive than the one they’d used in the past,” says the designer. “These people are cheap. It doesn’t matter how much work you’ve done; you just hear them bitch all night. I couldn’t get off the board soon enough.”