There are a couple of key steps to finding—or creating—a volunteer opportunity that meets most if not all of your criteria.
You may want to volunteer for an existing organization, or start your own volunteer project. It's worth it to first check and see what already exists (for more on going DIY, click here).
You may decide to join another effort, or just learn more about the landscape — who is already working on your issue, and what are they doing? How is your project distinct and unique?
As you walk through this first step, keep track of volunteer opportunities that catch your eye but don't yet spend too much time researching them or dwelling on the details.
What organizations are you already familiar with? For example, have you donated money somewhere? Is there a particular group you admire? Are there local organizations that have a great reputation in your community? These are generally good places to start—especially if you're a first-time volunteer—as you're likely to already know a bit about them before seeking to become a part of their team.
Ask around within your own personal and professional networks to see what potential places come highly recommended.
Where do the people you know and care about volunteer? Where have your friends and colleagues had great or not-so-great experiences? If they work for a government, faith, or nonprofit organization, do they currently have opportunities for volunteers that you might want to check out?
Many communities — especially larger urban areas — have some kind of volunteer center where you can find volunteer postings.
Search online for the local volunteer center near you, or check out this list.
The good news is that several great websites can help you find and explore opportunities to volunteer.
In the United States alone, you can search:
Outside the United States check out:
To find websites specific to your country, check out our list of national volunteerism organizations here.
Which of the volunteer opportunities in Step One above are a good fit with the type of activity or role you're ideally seeking? Where might you best be able to contribute your particular skills and talents? Which will help you make progress on your own personal or professional goals? With the criteria you've identified in mind, put a check mark next to each potential volunteer opportunity that might be a good fit.
Then, when you're done with Activity/Role, continue this process with the other four columns: Time Commitment, Structure, Issue/Cause, and Other Considerations. Are any of these categories especially important to you? Feel free to "weight" your responses by adding two or more checkmarks in those columns.
When you're finished, go through the volunteer opportunities you identified as being of interest and pull out those that have the greatest number of checkmarks (feel free to also pull those that had fewer checkmarks but sounded particularly interesting). Hopefully there will be at least a few with four checks or more! If you've ended up with more than five, you may want to pare it down a bit to make your next steps less time consuming.
The great news about volunteering is that there are literally thousands, if not millions, of organizations out there to get involved with. The reality, though, is that within this range will be some that are a great fit for you and some that will be not quite right—or even very clearly wrong—given what you are looking for. At this point in the process, start checking out the organizations behind the volunteer opportunities you've identified.
Your first stop should be their website (if they are on Idealist.org, you can get a preview by visiting their page on our site; otherwise, look for their web address in their volunteer opportunity posting or find it using a search engine). What is their mission? What programs and activities do they use to reach this mission? Are they affiliated with any organizations, faith communities, political parties, or universities you know?
Assuming no red flags pop up, the next step is to talk to someone there, preferably the volunteer manager, volunteer coordinator, or other staff person who is responsible for engaging volunteers at the organization. Request to meet with them either in person or by phone or Skype, or see if you can send them some questions by email. A few things worth asking (note that some of these may be answered in the text they used to advertise the volunteer position):
Lastly be sure to ask any questions that are specific to you; for example, building accessibility, physical ability required for the position, transportation options, accommodations for a restricted diet or certain religious/cultural practices, etc. (For more info on accessibility and overcoming barriers to service, click here.)
So you've gathered all your info. You've assessed your interests and availability. You've identified some potential volunteer opportunities and you've held them up to your criteria to see which might be the best fit. You've also asked the organization questions to learn a bit more about their volunteer program, working environment, and expectations. Now it's all up to you to decide which one to try.
It may be that all these previous steps helped whittle down your list to one or two contenders. If not, take a look at the volunteer opportunities left standing and ask yourself which sound most interesting, fun, or challenging (or conversely, which might be boring or too difficult). If so inspired, you can even write the volunteer roles on pieces of paper, throw them in a hat, and draw one at random. Whatever your method for deciding where to start, it's time to dive in. After all, if it doesn't work out, you can always go back to the list or do a new search.
The bottom line is to choose the volunteer opportunity that best fits with your interests, availability, and goals. Don't worry about hurting feelings by saying no to an opportunity that just doesn't feel right; it will actually end up being more work for both you and the organization if you say yes out of guilt but then dislike or leave the position after you start. The right fit for you is likely to be a better fit for them as well and the volunteer who thrives in their position is the best possible partner for an organization to have.
So go on. Fill out the application, pick a date, send an email—whatever the process is to get started. You're ready to volunteer.