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10 Questions to Maximize Your Volunteer Experience

A volunteer graphic.

Whether it’s showing your support for a cause, cultivating empathy, or gaining professional experience, there are plenty of great reasons to volunteer!

While volunteering your time, skills, and energy to an organization or cause you believe in can be a great experience, it can also become draining if you or the organization aren’t fully prepared for the commitment, however short term it may be. Here are 10 questions you can ask yourself before and during a volunteer opportunity to ensure you are prepared to make the most of your volunteer experience!

Before your volunteer opportunity:

1. Why do I want to volunteer (and why this specific experience)?

Know why you are volunteering- how you want to contribute and what you want to gain from the experience. Research opportunities (more about this in questions 2 and 3) until you find a few specific experiences that you want to pursue. When you pick a specific experience, know why you are choosing that particular one. This goal becomes your framework for making choices during your experience and understanding the value of your experience overall. While I was in college, knowing that my reasons for volunteering with Kilimanjaro Young Girls in Need were very different from my reasons for volunteering with an assisted living center near my campus helped me better appreciate each experience for what it was and make decisions about my involvement that benefited the organization and myself.

2. What do I know about this organization?

Knowing what you are getting yourself into by familiarizing yourself with the organization as a whole, not just their mission or your particular area of interest. Knowing as much as possible about the organization, their goals, and their staff will help you better appreciate your value as a volunteer and identify possibilities for continued engagement in the future. 

3. What do I already know about this organization’s volunteer program?

If they have a volunteer program, get to know it! This will help you identify opportunities you may not have been aware of and create a lasting relationship with the organization. If they don’t have one cohesive volunteer program, then learn more about their volunteer strategy - who, how, why, and when.

4. What exactly am I agreeing to?

While the organization where you volunteer may not have a formal outline of the work you are going to be doing, have a conversation with the volunteer coordinator about your specific involvement. The more specific you can be, the more likely you are to make a realistic commitment (this benefits both you and the organization). If you say “Yes!” to so much volunteer work that other areas of your life become neglected, you may end up becoming resentful and tired. This isn’t helpful for anyone. Be specific with yourself and with them about what you can and cannot do. 

During your volunteer experience:

5. Why else could I be doing this?

Dream big! Volunteer experiences tend to be “low risk, high reward” situations. Now that you know your primary motivating factor for choosing this specific volunteer experience and you’ve

familiarized yourself with the organization, ask yourself if there is a larger goal you have that this opportunity connects with. When I first began my volunteer experience with Kilimanjaro Young Girls in Need, I was mostly interested in learning more about their culture, gaining teaching experience, and pushing myself out of my comfort zone. After learning more about the organization and being there for a week, I realized that my dance background was more than just a great way to connect with the girls and teach the material - this was a way I could connect my academic interests into a creative, fulfilling career! Since that experience, I’ve continued to find ways to meld my love of dance with my love for education.

6. What is my current value to this organization?

In an ideal world, your volunteer coordinator would remind you everyday why your contribution is valuable and how much the organization appreciates you. Realistically, they (and you!) would not have much time leftover to do any work if this was the case. Identify how your work contributes to the organization’s mission and remind yourself of this when you feel like your contribution is going unnoticed. Knowing your value can help keep you motivated, even when times are tough!

7. What is my potential value to this organization?

Create a fulfilling experience where you feel your personal contribution is valued by noticing what the unmet needs of the organization are. This will help you define what your contributions to the organization could be and communicate them to the volunteer coordinator in a way that resonates with them. If your current value and potential value are aligned well, then consider your value to the organization beyond the duration of your volunteer experience. You could become a donor in the future, may recommend the organization to others, or be in a position one day to create opportunities for the organization they do not currently have.

8. What do I need to do to maintain my current value, and what do I need to do to achieve my potential value?

Connect all the dots - what you’ve agreed to do now, why it is important for you to do this, and how your participation with the organization can have a lasting, positive impact. This can serve as your volunteer experience “personal statement,” and can be referred to anytime you start to feel lost in what your role is or you need more motivation to stay engaged with the work.

9. Who in the organization, am I most comfortable communicating with? Who is my ally?

Figure out who your confidante is and use them! Don’t keep issues or triumphs to yourself - share them with someone you are comfortable with so they can help you out when needed or celebrate your success with you. The more you communicate, the more likely you are to create a sustaining, mutually beneficial relationship.

10. How would I describe my experience to someone I care about?

Try reflecting on an experience while you are still in a position to do something about it. If a loved one were to ask you about your experience, would you have anything bad to say? Would you have any “If I had known, I would have….” or “I wish I could have…” statements? If so, do something about it while you still can! If your response would include a lot of exclamation points, smiles, and feel-good moments, then sit back and appreciate the moment.

By Jhia Jackson

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