Volunteering is priceless when it comes to leadership in that it gives you fabulous community exposure and the chance to form real connections. Those relationships, along with the learning and good you do with the projects, yield a tremendous sense of joyful inner purpose, even as they also benefit the bottom line.
The only trouble is, people can bombard you with an onslaught of requests. You can feel obligated to try to do it all and guilty if you can't.
So what do you do?
1. Ask for something else.
As Tom Hanks notes, the best thing you ever can do for your career is to use the word "no" well and accept only those opportunities that honestly intrigue, rejuvenate or grow you in some way. Be honest with the person requesting that the opportunity doesn't really jive with your interests. Stress that you want to be involved in areas where you can fully commit mentally and emotionally. Then ask if they have other volunteer areas within the niches you really want. This communicates that you're not opposed to giving your time, but it also shows that you have a clear concept of your goals and that you are committed to them.
2. Note all dates and times.
When an opportunity has multiple dates and times available, people often try to grab the earliest one, believing that an early response looks better to others and that it will free them to focus on other tasks faster. But if you've already committed to other work, cramming more on top can make both that work and the volunteer job suffer. Instead of thinking about whether it fits a fast-upcoming calendar block, sign up based on when you know you'll be able to give your absolute best, even if that's weeks or months out.
3. Create a policy.
Everyone's tolerance and free time available for volunteering is different. And people won't know what's personally all right for you unless you make it clear from the start. Think about how much notice you need and the types of projects you do or don't want. Then write a simple line in your email signature, public calendar header, website, social media profile and similar areas that clarifies the standard. Then, when you get requests that don't follow the standard, point them back to it, politely decline and invite them to submit a request later according to your needs and preferences.
4. Do a check-in.
Now more than ever, schedules in the office are all over the map, especially with gigging and the use of freelancers becoming normalized. So if you have a team or particular individuals you work with on a regular basis, schedule a regular time where everyone can clarify their calendars and pitch volunteer opportunities. Having this set up in advance can prevent you from having to field pitches on a daily basis, yet it reassures others that they won't have to scramble to talk to you. If you're the boss at your company, you also could invite leaders to present to you or your teams on specific days of the month.
5. Make a referral.
Volunteer leaders always are looking for people with just the right skills. But that doesn't mean you alone have to fit the bill. Their biggest concern is just to have someone who is qualified to handle the responsibilities at hand, so if you can't step up, carefully consider your contacts. You probably have someone in your network who's just as capable, intelligent and experienced as you are, and who needs the volunteer opportunity more. It's a win-win-win situation--the organizer fills the position, you get to pass without feeling like a schmuck, and the person you refer gets interaction and practice they'd otherwise miss out on.
6. Connect with HR.
Bad leaders sometimes try to force people into volunteering, manipulating others under the guise of "strengthening the team". Don't tolerate this. Confront them privately about the way they're recruiting, and if they respond negatively or still won't stop, get in touch with HR about the behavior. This applies to recruiters at other businesses as well as your own.