Get the Most Out of Volunteering With These 7 Tips

Do you volunteer? If so, congratulations! Volunteerism is one of the most cherished of American values.

You are one of the nearly 77.4 million Americans who volunteered in recent years, turning in 6.9 billion hours valued at $167 billion. 

Although volunteers make all of our lives better, you, the volunteer, can expect to be happier, healthier, and more likely to be employed than people who never volunteer. Studies have shown that unemployed folks who volunteer enjoy 27% better odds of finding a job. And, if you want to work at a nonprofit, there's no better way to show your mettle or get your foot in the door than volunteering. It even looks good on your resume.​

If you are looking for a way to volunteer or do more of it, here are some tips for finding that perfect volunteer spot.

Follow Your Passion

Volunteer tutoring young girl.
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Are you passionate about a particular problem or issue? Just to think, "Oh, well, volunteering would be a nice thing to do," isn't enough. You might start, but will you stick with it?

If you feel strongly about something, such as animals, homelessness, women's rights,  world poverty, or helping children, then that is an excellent sign and the start of outstanding volunteer experience.

Not sure what your passion is?  Try out several charities by volunteering on two or three of the special days throughout the year that feature volunteering.

The most popular one is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service in January. But there are many more, such as International Women's Day and World Aids Day. Here's an entire calendar of doing good days throughout the year.

Check Your Calendar

Volunteers helping to microchip wildlife.
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How much time do you have? Are you up for a long-term gig? Or do you want something that is short and infrequent? Could you donate a certain amount of time each week or month? Your available time is something you'll want to share with the nonprofits you contact.

Don't feel that you have to commit a lot of time until you've tried out that charity on something small and less demanding at first. Be honest with the charity and tell them that you're trying them out, but might be interested in something long-term eventually.

Fortunately, there are volunteer opportunities that can fit any time commitment, from being a Girl Scout leader for a school year to registering attendees at a charity event for a few hours.
Nonprofits have become quite adept at tailoring volunteer opportunities to fit our hectic lifestyles. For instance, Skills for Change works with nonprofits and volunteers to accomplish tasks that can be done in snatches of time. The site works well for computer savvy people with specific skills such as research, blogging, or marketing. These work from home opportunities are called micro-volunteering or virtual volunteering.
You may even be able to use work time to volunteer. Many companies have employee volunteer programs. Some create days of service during which teams of employees help a cause. And some companies loan out "skilled" volunteers to help with sophisticated projects at charities. You can even find a way to use your professional skills to benefit others through a matching service like Catchafire.

Don't Be Shy!

Volunteers signing up for work.
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Look up nearby organizations that deal with the issues most dear to you. Contact them and ask if they have any volunteer opportunities. Or you might respond to an invitation to show up to volunteer for a short project. 

You can also get an idea of what volunteer opportunities are out there by visiting the many online volunteer matching services. There's one for just about any age or interest.

Your local media are also excellent resources. Community newspapers and the websites of your favorite TV stations often have news or listings of volunteer needs right in your neighborhood.

Question your neighbors and friends about their volunteer experiences and how they got involved. This is a great tactic when you're looking to volunteer as a family or to get your teenager started with volunteering. Ask other parents if they have done this and where.

Contact one to three organizations and then visit them in person. Ideally, you'll meet with a volunteer coordinator and get a good idea of how the nonprofit works, the kinds of volunteer opportunities available, and how you might fit in.
It's a good idea to volunteer for a small project before taking on something that eats up a lot of times and energy.  If it doesn't work out, you can move on. Finding a good volunteer match can make the difference between being a volunteer dropout or a happy, dedicated one.

Don't Settle For Less

Volunteers working on wildlife conservation project, Lion Park, Johannesburg, South Africa.
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Volunteer work should not be entirely selfless. It is crucial that you enjoy what you are doing so that you will continue doing it. Think about what you like to do.

Are you a "take charge" kind of person? If so, you won't be happy knocking on doors or stuffing envelopes. Look for leadership opportunities at nonprofits, such as serving on a board of directors, helping with fundraising, or organizing an event.

On the other hand, you might not want something intellectually challenging. Perhaps you have enough of that in your career and would like to do something simple but meaningful. Maybe you would enjoy cleaning up a vacant lot, planting a garden or signing people up for a charity run, or another unique way of being charitable.

You can even combine your love of travel and adventure through voluntourism. Many charities offer volunteer trips in the US and abroad. You can also become a global citizen with some international flavored volunteer opportunities. Examples include hosting a high school student on an exchange program or teaching English to people new to our country. Working with migrants fleeing violence through an immigration center might be immensely satisfying.

Assess Your Skills

Volunteer leading kids on a fielf trip.
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Make a list of the things you are good at so that you can share them with the volunteer coordinators.

Computer geeks, for instance, are in high demand at nonprofits.

But your unique contribution might be: 

  • superb organizing skills
  • ability to do detailed work such as keeping meticulous records
  • hands-on skills such as carpentry or sewing
  • a knack for writing or public speaking
  • medical experience
  • talent for data management.
  • teaching, love of the outdoors, science knowledge
  • ability to speak another language

The better match you are to the volunteer job, the happier you'll be.

Expect to be Challenged

Volunteer at an animal shelter
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Boredom and impatience with the process are the biggest threats to a fulfilling volunteer experience.

Some nonprofits will be disorganized and ill prepared for volunteers. If that's the case, don't hang around. If they deserve you, they will be ready to use you effectively.

If you work for a high-powered corporation, you may get impatient with the way a nonprofit operates. Try to refrain from telling them how to do their job.

If you work with things instead of people, you may have to rethink how you operate. Working with people and their problems takes a different and more patient mindset.

Be Open to Changing Your Mind

Volunteers at a community kitchen.
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The best volunteers are those who open themselves to new experiences and who are willing to test their beliefs.

You may be challenged by working with people who are less educated than yourself, from different backgrounds, and who look different. For sure, your stereotypes will crumble as you witness the dignity of all people no matter their circumstances.

These challenges are healthy ones. You will grow if you persevere rather than run away at your first glimpse of life as others live it.

Don't let a bad volunteer experience scare you off. Keep looking. Your ideal opportunity is out there, and it may be a life-changing experience.