People say volunteering for professional associations can be a nag: It is time-consuming and you don't get paid are two common refrains I hear from people who work in academia, especially when you work in libraries. That is true, but it can also be rewarding.
When you work at a small college, in a toxic environment, feel isolated, you can't move up any further in the organization, have chosen family over a career, volunteering can be a great way to gain and improve new skills like project management and leadership, gain confidence, and grow a network. It is also a way to escape a toxic work environment. Most importantly volunteering is a way to give back.
Since I presently work at a small college library with only a few staff members who are now mostly student workers since the pandemic started, it was challenging to find opportunities to manage projects with other librarians. I just wrapped up several projects I was working on as a chair of a committee and as a chair of a subcommittee (which, no, I don't think you can put on your curriculum vitae). Volunteering allowed me to shepherd a few projects from start to finish that impacts the profession. If you don't have an opportunity to lead a project from beginning to finish at your workplace, volunteer for a committee in your professional association that you are passionate about.
When I first started volunteering for ACRL, I felt like a fish out of water. I wanted to volunteer, but I didn't know if ACRL was the right place for me. It is key to find a place that you fit in, and when you do you will gain confidence in your skills. For me, I gained confidence in speaking up. Speaking up was not a strong suit of mine, I deferred to people who had more seniority than I do. When volunteering, generally, no matter what your title is at your workplace, most of you are all members, working for the same thing.
My network of librarian colleagues stopped growing when I remained at one workplace for many years. I stayed at my workplace for family reasons. Volunteering for professional organizations helped me grow my network. Work-life and personal life situations can improve when colleagues talk out plans and projects. Having a network of colleagues helps you get fresh ideas that you can bring back to your institution and receive career advice.
While there is a lot of value to give back by volunteering to professional associations, I have sometimes volunteered to escape from work. When you work in a toxic work environment and experience gaslighting and other microaggressions, but can't leave for a variety of personal reasons, volunteering for a professional organization is a great way to escape that toxic work environment, at least for a little while. If you work in a toxic culture, you should probably leave, but the grass is not always greener on the other side of the fence. By volunteering, you can gain and improve skills, gain confidence, and grow your network.
There are so many valuable reasons to volunteer for professional associations including gaining and improving your skills, gaining confidence, growing your network, and escaping a toxic work environment. You could also volunteer for tenure & promotion, but to stay involved in a professional organization long-term you must be passionate about what your association does. Sometimes the most prestigious association is not the right one for you. You will find the right one if by regularly showing up to events and participating.