Finding the Right Volunteer Opportunity for You

by Susan J. Ellis of Energize, Inc. and The Virtual Volunteering Project

There are many volunteer assignments available and you should take your time to find the one that best matches you. Start by thinking about the following questions:

What causes or issues matter the most to me?

Do you know what organizations address these issues, and are these organizations accessible in your community? Do you think these organizations are doing a good job and deserve your support? Have you ever given them a financial donation, and do you feel good about how your donation was used?

Or are you concerned about a cause that no one else seems to be tackling? Are you willing to be the founder of a new effort? Are you concerned about issues outside the United States?

All of these questions will help you to focus on the type of organization you want to approach with your offer to volunteer.

Do I want to volunteer for something that uses the skills I apply in my paying work or do I want to do something completely different?

 

What types of things are you good at (and like to do)? These can be professional skills or even hobbies and recreational talents. Almost every type of skill is needed somewhere. The better you are at explaining exactly what you can offer, the easier it will be to find the right type of volunteer work for you.

Keep in mind that some volunteer positions will require prior knowledge of a task (such as working with a computer), but that there are a lot of volunteer assignments needing great people skills, too--the ability to be a good listener, non-judgemental, cheery, supportive.

When you inventory your assets, also ask yourself: "Do I want to use these talents in a volunteer capacity?" If you really are looking for a complete change from your everyday job, then you might not want to select volunteer work that calls upon the same skills you use everyday.

What would I most like to learn by volunteering?

As a volunteer, you have the freedom to experiment with new activities. Is there something you wish you had the opportunity to learn? Some organizations will gladly assign you to something as a beginner because they know that you will be motivated by tackling something new. This is one way that volunteering develops your skills and is fun. By testing yourself in different ways, you'll end up with a fresh perspective back in the everyday world.

What don't I want to do as a volunteer?

It's OK to identify certain things you want to avoid as a volunteer. The happier you are about what you will be doing, the better you will be as a volunteer. So don't feel that you have to say "yes" to any assignment offered. Feel free to negotiate.

Do I want an ongoing, regularly-scheduled assignment, or a short-term assignment, or a one-time assignment?

Some volunteer assignments do require a lot of time. But others can be accomplished in a short period of time, even one day. More and more organizations are designing volunteer work that can be done in the evenings and on weekends, and in short bursts of intensive time. Be honest with yourself and with the agency you contact about your availability and start from there. The organization will need to know that they can count on you to maintain your scheduled commitment. It may be better to start with a limited number of hours of volunteer work and later expand your schedule, rather than promising many more hours than you later will be able to give.

Do I want to work alone or with a group? Or with a friend or my family?

 

Am I willing to participate in a training course or do I want to start my volunteer work immediately?

 

With what kind of people do I want to work--both in terms of who is receiving services and who my co-workers might be?

 

What should I expect when I contact an agency to apply to become a volunteer?

Most agencies will ask you questions about your background, qualifications and interests. Depending on the type of agency and on the volunteer assignment, you may be asked to make an appointment for a face-to-face interview. Expect to complete a written volunteer application form.

If the assignment involves working with children or other vulnerable populations, it may be a legal requirement that the agency ask for references and do a child abuse or other criminal background check. Don't be insulted! It's the law. Besides, aren't you glad that children and the elderly are being protected?

Based on the assignment under consideration, it is also possible that you may be asked to sign a confidentiality statement, take a tuberculosis test, show proof of automobile insurance, or agree to attend a training workshop. If you are under age 18, you will probably need to have a parent or guardian sign a consent form.

Feel free to ask questions about any of the procedures requested by the agency.

How do I find information about volunteer opportunities?

There are many ways to identify organizations looking for volunteers. The Points of Light Foundation serves as a national volunteer center network, and VolunteerMatch is an online database helping volunteers and organizations find their perfect match. Yahoo! provides a wonderful directory of community service and volunteerism resources, which might be a great place to begin your search.

You can also call any agency and ask if they are looking for volunteers. Just as with a paid job search, taking the initiative may pay off.

And if you cannot find an organization that does the work you most want to do as a volunteer, maybe you should consider becoming the founder of a new group or agency. It always starts with one person with a vision. Maybe that's you!

Looking for volunteer work is very much like looking for a paying job--only better! Expect volunteering to be a fun way to spend your valuable time, with the added benefit of helping others. The more you know about what you want to do, the more valuable you will be to the organization you join as a volunteer.

Persistence pays! Not every agency may answer you promptly. Or the application, screening, and training may take up several weeks to complete. Do not get discouraged if a program does not get back to you, or if a program requires several "hoops" to go through before you can start volunteering. Rewards from volunteering are well worth the effort, so hang in there and keep trying!

Copyright Energize, Inc., used by permission, and ServiceLeader.Org.