By: Elizabeth J. Potter
“Every person can make a difference and every person should try.”
-John F. Kennedy
Volunteers are the invisible glue that keeps communities and nonprofit organizations together. Margaret Mead famously said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” The world has benefitted from the dedication and passion of volunteers for millennia, and the 21st century will be no exception as the next generation of volunteers are being connected through digital platforms, virtual giving, and awareness campaigns, the dynamism of volunteering has expanded exponentially.
Volunteer opportunities range from raising money, sharing information, to donating time and skills to a specific cause or nonprofit organization. As wonderful as it is to be motivated by your sense of community giving or obligation, it’s important to remember that you want to make sure you’re choosing the right volunteer opportunity for you, your passion, and your skills. Here are some good tips on how to make sure you are choosing the right opportunity for the best volunteer experience.
Figure out what’s important to you
What kind of a difference are you making? Do you want to make an impact on your local community? Make a contribution to a cause near and dear to your heart? Looking to build on existing talents or learn new skills that will advance your career or enable you to change career paths? Choosing the right volunteer opportunity will depend greatly on what you are looking to achieve personally. Before embarking on a new volunteer opportunity, it’s important to reflect on what your objectives are.
Consider your goals and interests
The trick to finding the right opportunity is finding a position you enjoy but are also capable of doing physically, mentally, and emotionally. Theory and execution are two entirely different things, what might seem like the perfect volunteer experience on paper may not exactly measure up in real life. Is this cause or organization something very close to you? Will volunteering professional skills be what takes the organization to the next level? Will your volunteer position fill a gap in the organization? Will you be making a measurable impact on your community? Be sure that your goals and interests line up with the mission of the organization you are committing to.
Be honest about your schedule
It’s always better to start slow than to over-schedule yourself. Be realistic about the available free time you have in your schedule. If you have a consistent calendar you know you can schedule certain times, that’s great, but more often than not peoples’ schedules are fluid and ever changing based on family commitments, work engagements, and school functions and activities. Be as upfront as possible with yourself and the organization about your degree of availability. Some volunteer opportunities will have a minimum monthly or weekly commitment that must be made. This is for the protection of the organization as well as the population being served. Groups and organizations are more than happy to take the time to onboard and train a new volunteer, but that is an investment of time and money. Often times the minimum commitment is a way for the organization to ensure that they will get a return on their investment and that they have a serious volunteer on their hands who is willing to make a serious commitment. Be honest with yourself, are you looking for a long-term commitment or shorter, project-based opportunities? Are you able to dedicate one evening a week or one afternoon a month? There are volunteer opportunities for every level of time commitment, get the most out of your experience by being upfront about what kind of time you are able to contribute.
Consider volunteering with a friend or as a family
If you’re concerned about trying something new where you won’t know anyone, consider inviting a friend to join you! Find someone in your life who shares your interest and commitment and see if they’d be interested in volunteering as well. You can always consider volunteering as a family! There are plenty of volunteer opportunities suitable for children and families, why not instill a sense of community service in your child by leading by example and making volunteering a priority? Teaching the next generation the importance of donating their efforts and time is invaluable and also provides meaningful family memories based on a foundation of selflessness and community.
Be prepared to answer questions yourself
Most nonprofits have their own policies and procedures they need to follow, some even have government mandated volunteer vetting processes in addition to their own HR protocols. Nonprofits have to be scrupulous when accepting volunteers to work with certain populations like children, patients in healthcare facilities, and more. Volunteers will usually have to complete an interview, an application, background checks, and orientation just like paid employees do. This is as much for the volunteer’s sake as the organization, depending on the populations served, there could be legal ramifications if proper screening and training don’t take place. Besides legal red tape, the organization wants to get a feel for what brought you to them, they want to make sure you understand their goals and mission completely before they let you represent them in the community. They also want to make sure that you get the experience you are looking for, the more they know and understand you and what motivates you, the more likely you are to have a fulfilling and meaningful volunteer experience (and more likely to stay on as a volunteer in the long run).
Remember you are a volunteer
Committing to an organization and donating time and effort provides a huge sense of connectedness; however, it’s important to remember that you are a volunteer and you can’t spread yourself too thin. If a time commitment has become too great or the experience is not what you were expecting/looking for, it’s okay to speak to the volunteer coordinator at your organization and let them know your concerns. There might be a different opportunity within the organization that better suits your goals or availability. Or maybe you don’t feel like it’s a fit and now you are afraid to ‘quit’ volunteering. Don’t be! It is your time that you are gifting, it’s your right to feel like you are giving it appropriately. No one knows you better than you, if you feel that you could better serve elsewhere the organization will be thankful for your candor and appreciate the fact you did your best despite it not being the right fit. Take it in stride, as a learning experience as you move on to your next opportunity.
RECAP: To Get the Most out of Volunteering:
Do your research
Make sure you know what’s expected of you
Don’t be afraid to make a change
When an organization and a volunteer have a mutual understanding regarding availability, capability, expectations, and goals, volunteering can be a tremendously rewarding experience. Volunteering not only provides meaningful contributions to your community but it can re-energize you, renew your sense of self, motivate you to improve other aspects of your life, improve your health, and contribute to an overall increased quality of life. Just be sure to take the time to research your cause and identify your particular goal in order to have the richest and most fulfilling volunteer experience possible!