If you have been a professional for any length of time, you have probably been offered plenty of volunteer opportunities. Being asked to review manuscripts for journals, organize a session for a professional conference, or serve on a committee for your department, organization, or professional society can be flattering and possibly beneficial. But before you accept, make sure you critically evaluate the offer.
What are you being asked to do? Make sure you understand your role. What will your responsibilities be and for how long? How much time will it take each week? Who will be responsible for other parts of the project, and have they already committed? Is there a term limit or other defined endpoint, or will you be responsible for finding your own successor? It may be a good idea to ask a friend or colleague who has done this how much time and effort are really involved.
What are you being asked to contribute? You may be asked to leverage your professional network, like asking your contacts to participate or contribute financially. You may be expected to cover your own expenses and possibly donate additional funds, or your expenses may be reimbursed, or you may even receive a small honorarium. It is perfectly fine to ask what the specific parameters are so you can decide how much of your personal resources (if any) you are willing to commit.
In addition to your money and professional contacts, any new activity will require contributions of time and energy (mental and physical) that need to come from somewhere. You can’t create more hours in the day, so you will most likely have to give up something else to make room for this.
What will you get in return? Maybe you will get to develop some specific professional skills. Be wary of positions that ask you to do something completely new, because most people underestimate the learning curve. If this is something you will put on your résumé or CV, how prestigious is it? Will you be working with new people who may be able to help you professionally in the future (in other words, build your professional network)? Will your current organization give you credit for this activity (will it be counted for you at promotion time)? Is this a cause you are passionate about and will get personal satisfaction from helping? Is it the kind of thing you might have sought out on your own?
What are the consequences of saying no? Who asked you, and was it really an ask or more of a tell? Is this offer likely to come around again, or is it truly once in a lifetime? In the end, you are the only one who can decide how to spend your time. You can ensure that you make the best possible decision by understanding what you are getting yourself into and what you will be getting in return. If you decide to accept, commit fully and do the best job you can. If not, recommend someone else so both parties will think of you favorably when the next opportunity comes along.
Get involved in the discussion. The ACS Career Tips column is published the first issue of every month in C&EN. Send your comments and ideas for topics for future columns to email@example.com.