Get Started Volunteering

A sign with a painting of the world on it.

As you prepare to volunteer, take time to consider what would make an opportunity a productive experience for you. Finding the right role will increase the likelihood that the experience will be mutually beneficial, as being unsatisfied with your opportunity or not following through on your commitment to an organization may not only have a negative impact on you, but also the community you’re serving (additionally, a strong performance could result in the added bonus of future employment). 

So think carefully! 

What’s important to you in a volunteer opportunity? Here are some guiding questions to ask yourself: 

  • Is this opportunity Issue-oriented or skill-oriented? Some people care more about working on a particular issue, such as animal welfare or early childhood education, and less about the skills they’ll be applying or acquiring in their volunteer capacity. Others are the opposite - more interested in the skills than the issue.
  • What is the size of the organization? Larger organizations such as museums and mentoring programs tend to have robust volunteer management programs that offer significant structure and support to volunteers. Smaller organizations might not have a staff person dedicated to volunteer management, meaning you may be required to take more initiative with your role. 
  • What is the time commitment? Opportunities can vary from an annual beach clean up day through teaching English to new immigrants twice a week for a year. 
  • Would you provide direct service or work behind the scenes? Direct service roles put you at the front lines of serving a particular community, such as mentoring a child or serving food at a local shelter. Other roles are equally important, but not front-facing, such as providing administrative and technical support.

Once you’re clear on what you’re looking for, you’re ready to start your search! Here are some tips:

  • Start with your network: talk with friends, colleagues and family for recommendations on organizations that match your criteria.
  • Organizations you know: are there organizations you admire or are familiar with? Who has a good reputation in your community? Which organizations have you donated to?
  • Local volunteer center: many communities have a volunteer center with staff who can help match you with the right opportunity. Such centers often have databases of opportunities to search through. 
  • Online: it's likely that there's a volunteer matching site in your country and language. Some examples include VolunteerMatch (USA), Do-It (UK) and (Canada). And of course, search Idealist, which offers a global directory of opportunities.

Once you’ve identified the opportunities, spend some time learning more about roles and organizations (for a one-day volunteer gig, or something that you'll only do sporadically, it's not worth investing a lot of time in this discovery phase).

  • Visit the organization's website to learn about their programs and activities, staff size, affiliations with other organizations and finances. 
  • Reach out to the staff person responsible for engaging volunteers, typically the volunteer manager or someone in human resources to ask questions about the role and the level of support you’ll have as a volunteer. 
  • Sample questions include: Does this position require training? Who would I be working with/reporting to? What are typical challenges faced by volunteers in this role? When would the opportunity start, if my application is accepted? Can I speak with former volunteers to learn about their experiences?

Once you’ve accepted a volunteer role with an organization, it’s in your best interest and theirs that you have a positive experience. It is reasonable for you to expect:

  • Clarity about your volunteer role: from questions about the application process (why do I need to have a background check? when will I find out if I've been accepted?) to details about your responsibilities, it's important to feel comfortable asking for information.
  • Appreciation for your participation: you should feel that an organization is using your skills and talents well, and that the work you do—anything from filing papers in an office to coaching a youth sports team—is meaningful.
  • Flexibility: if things are not working out, you have the right to talk to your volunteer manager to discuss ways to adjust the role or change positions.
  • A safe and supportive environment: be aware of potential risks that come with the position (if any), and be familiar with the safety procedures in place to ensure your physical and emotional well-being.
  • Freedom to leave: if after talking with your volunteer manager, you still feel unhappy or unappreciated, it's okay to leave the organization. It's appropriate to give reasonable notice if you make this decision. 

The organization can expect that you’ll:

  • Follow through on your commitment: honor your responsibilities and provide ample notice if you need to leave! This is especially important if you are working with a vulnerable population, such as children. When you don't follow through, you are potentially undermining the organization's reputation and more importantly, possibly doing harm by letting down people who are counting on you. 
  • Communicate your needs: if you feel your work isn't meaningful or doesn't meet your expectations, talk to your supervisor about your concerns.
  • Honor the organization's investment in you: organizations invest a lot of staff time to supporting and training volunteers, which is why it's important to research your volunteer position first to determine if it's a good fit for you, and, once you're in the role, to always first try negotiating your volunteer role if you're unsatisfied, rather than just suddenly leaving.
  • Take care of yourself: make sure that you're not overextending yourself, burning out, or causing yourself physical, mental, or emotional harm by taking on roles that aren't a good fit or that you aren't prepared for. You can limit stress by seeking out support, taking a break, injecting some fun into your work, and having realistic expectations about what can be accomplished and when.

Check out this article to learn more about how to excel as a volunteer. This, of course, brings us to…  

Volunteering = Career Development

Working towards professional goals and helping to make a difference in the world are not mutually exclusive. Whether you are currently unemployed, completing your degree, or simply considering future career possibilities, volunteering is an ideal way to:

  • Develop new skills
  • Apply your existing skills in new ways and in new environments (not to mention, for those who aren't currently employed in their fields, simply keep them sharp)
  • Explore new career paths
  • Expand your personal and professional networks
  • Get on the radar of hiring professionals, giving them the opportunity to see you in action

Here’s an example:

Erica, a 44 year old corporate accountant at a large multinational company, has recently been laid off and is looking for a new job. While job searching, she takes on a volunteer role for a local environmental organization, serving as an advisor on their financial policies and practices. In this capacity, she's expanding her professional experience by tailoring the skills honed at her company to the needs of a small grassroots mission-driven organization. She is developing new strategies and adopting a more flexible approach to her craft.

As a volunteer, Erica's network has expanded, which is helping her identify potential job opportunities. For example, Erica's supervisor at the organization is impressed by her performance, and thus inquires on Erica's behalf about job openings at her brother's company. At the same time, given her passion for climate change, she's also considering looking for finance roles with nonprofit organizations, something she had not considered before.

As you start the process of finding or creating your ideal volunteer opportunity, consider the following questions to help you find opportunities that can also contribute to your professional development:

  • What skills would you like to apply in new ways? Keep sharp?
  • What skills or knowledge would you like to gain or learn from your volunteer experience?
  • Are you interested in contributing skills related to your career? Or would you prefer to do something entirely different?
  • Are there particular roles, careers, or organization types that you've been wanting to explore?
  • Are there areas of interest for pursuing a career?

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