In the early 1980s I joined a writers' organization and attended several meetings, conferences, and workshops. But as my involvement grew, I could see where I was going because I could see the other writers ahead of me on the road. Several beginning writers threw themselves into the work of supporting the organization and wrote less and less. Several well-published writers continued to write and volunteer, though over time they wrote less and volunteered more. Many saw their careers fall by the wayside. After a year of this I jumped to the wayside.
My admiration for the men and women who create and sustain organizations that benefit others is unflagging but for purely selfish reasons I choose not to be one of them. The time I spent volunteering was time I wasn't writing. But I didn't really like this totally selfish person, which meant I had to find another way to contribute to my community. I hold the belief that each of us should do something more important than our self. I know not everyone else believes this, but I do and that's enough.
As I've gone along writing over the years I've found various ways to contribute to other writers' success or advancement. The Larcom Review was a labor of love but also published a lot of New England writers, and treated them like professionals. I joined with two other writers to found and edit for seven years the Level Best Books anthology. I've contributed to, and run, numerous workshops for no pay, and invited other writers to join me on panel discussions. I regularly offer to write reviews for others as well as serving as a beta reader for some. I have limits, of course, because I have only so much time, but I think being available in some capacity for others is important.
I can still recall the many individuals who encouraged me when I first started writing as a teenager, and when I first started sending out short fiction during my college years. People helped in various ways but the point is each one offered something--a suggestion on a book to read, a comment on a story, the sharing of a magazine, invitation to a book event, and more. These sound like small things but they arose only because the individual took the time to listen and care about another person's progress. At the time we don't think such small offerings are important, but in later years we remember them with gratitude and, in my case, mild amazement at how significant a small gesture can be.
I hope that in taking a small role in my community of writers I am in some way repaying all those who helped me along the way.
For the many who are better at volunteering than I am, I recommend Sisters in Crime (and my chapter, New England), Mystery Writers of America (again, New England chapter), and the National Writers Union, Boston Local. I can't say enough good things about these groups and how much they do for the rest of us.