So You’re Thinking of Volunteering


written by Ellen Freudenheim, MPH

When it comes to volunteering, nobody wants to just stuff envelopes.

Not surprisingly, the secret to a happy volunteering experience is finding a position that suits your time and interests, and puts your efforts to good use toward a cause that you find inspiring.

Ha! That’s easier said than done.

Many people take the wallflower approach to getting involved in pro bono work: they wait until asked. Studies show that about half of the people currently volunteering say they were asked to give of their time.

But if you count yourself among those who take a proactive approach in life, there’s a world of possibilities in the pro bono world.

You can find volunteer work in a variety of settings: indoors and outdoors, in an idealistic public interest group, or in heavily regulated sectors such as hospitals and public schools. Take your pick: the local YMCA, a soup kitchen, organizing Special Olympics, tutoring, providing professional services to grassroots groups. You can hook up through the local affiliate of a national organization, work on a local or state level. Or, start your own non-profit organization.

As with paid employment, word of mouth and personal connections can open doors that’ll lead you to otherwise-hard-to-find opportunities.

Some volunteers flit from thing to thing. Others are lifers, sticking with one issue or organization for a decade or more. A few rise to the managerial ranks of volunteers, such as a precinct captain of a political campaign, or head organizer of a huge charity ball.

Here are a few tips on finding yourself a volunteer role that you’ll enjoy:

TIP #1: Remember, Your Time Is Your Own

There’s so much that needs doing in the world that you could spend your entire life working as a volunteer. A rule of thumb: Start by volunteering about two hours a week, which is the average amount of time that most Americans over 55 give.

TIP #2: Seems Obvious, but…Pursue Your Interests

Volunteering can be a great way to stay involved in something you love, whether that’s music, the environment, or theater. Your friends or spouse might prefer to be on the board of a local environmental organization and go to meetings, but if you are a nurturing soul and love serving meals at the homeless shelter, well, that’s what you should do. Viva la difference.

TIP #3. Consider a Range of Opportunities

Just as it’s different working for a large versus a small firm, you are likely to have a very different volunteer experience if you work for a large national organization or a small community-based group. For instance, large non-profit organizations that have a network of local chapters—such as the local YMCA, Meals on Wheels, or the American Cancer Society—usually orchestrate major programs and annual campaigns from a national headquarters. In contrast, in small local non-profits, management and programs might be more ad hoc, allowing you greater opportunity to work with staff, or contribute ideas.
Things to consider are how well organized the programs are, how innovative, how flexible, and how well they manage volunteers.

TIP #4. Scout Around

If you are stumped as to where to volunteer, (true, the wealth of online information is overwhelming) then you can start by gauging your interest using our worksheet (“[Making That Volunteer Commitment Work For You]”
Other ideas:

  • Contact your trade or professional organization for leads.
  • When reading the local newspaper about something that interests you, make a note of the organization that’s quoted as working on it.
  • The local United Way lists many community-based organizations.
  • Many large organizations’ Web sites link to local volunteer groups.
  • Log onto the Thousand Points of Light Foundation, Audubon Society, and US PIRG for starters. What’s PIRG?)

TIP #5. Ask, Ask, Ask

Not all non-profits are equally skilled at the task of managing their volunteers well. You can learn by getting a few references of people who have volunteered there, and asking a few incisive questions, for instance:

  • Is there a job description or a staff coordinator for volunteers?
  • How many volunteers do you have?
  • What in general is their job?
  • Who are the volunteers, in terms of skills, background?
  • Are the hours flexible?
  • How much time must a volunteer commit?
  • What are the working conditions?
  • If I have special needs, will they be honored?
  • What are the organization’s overall goals, and what programs would you be working on?