Volunteering is, by definition, about helping. Unfortunately, volunteers and volunteer programs aren’t always able to provide as much help as they could—because often, there’s confusion about the volunteer’s role, what the organization needs, or what the volunteer wants. And that can easily lead to ineffective management, volunteer frustration, and ultimately, poor services for the people who need them most.
I’ve been there. I have both volunteered and managed volunteers for over a decade and understand the situation from both sides. And I’ve found that, too often, it comes down to this: Volunteers and organizations aren’t clear with each other about their respective expectations and needs.
So, if you really want to wow your volunteer manager and ensure that your time is really benefitting the organization’s cause, think about the following questions before making any commitments.
1. How Much Time Can You Really Commit?
We’re all busy with our day jobs, friends, and family (OK, and maybe a little binge TV watching)—so don’t feel bad if you can’t commit 20-plus hours a week to volunteering. More importantly, don’t tell your volunteer manager that you can commit that kind of time when you can realistically only do a two-hour shift. But don’t feel guilty about only doing a little or starting small—most organizations prefer longevity rather than big, one-time commitments.
Being clear about the time you can allot will also help you figure out the appropriate position to seek. For instance, a soup kitchen doesn’t require you to work too many hours at a time, but it helps the staff to have a regular schedule of volunteers they can count on. An event planning committee, on the other hand, may not take up too much time during the first month, but as you get closer to the event, may turn into 15-20 hours a week, depending on your role.
By deciding what you can realistically do now, you’ll save yourself a lot of headaches in the future.
2. What Do You Want to Give?
What are you really good at? What would you want to keep doing, even after a long day? This doesn’t have to be anything unique—it can be as simple as washing dishes or making small talk. For example, I love to write, but after a long day of grant writing (and maybe drafting a column), the last thing I want to do is sit in front of a computer for another several hours. However, I also love talking to people about fundraising and strategy—and so, a good contribution of my time is to meet with or lead a fundraising committee. Alternatively, although I’m a terrible artist, I’m really good at keeping kids occupied with craft projects, which makes me an ideal babysitter for events that need to offer childcare.
You can also take advantage of opportunities that help you build your skills. If you’re a budding PR professional, for example, but your firm has you churning out boring press release copy, offer to do pitching or social media strategy for a nonprofit. (And if you really enjoy and excel at it, you might even find yourself with a job offer!)
3. What Do You Want Out of It?
It’s not counterintuitive to “get” something out of volunteering—it is, in fact, my primary motivation!
There are all kinds of volunteer opportunities that offer different experiences and different benefits. For instance, as a board member of a grassroots anti-violence organization, I get the chance to impart my executive knowledge at a high level. At the same time, as a somewhat young professional, it also serves as a resume builder. Everyone on the board is at a similar stage in their careers, so we’re collectively able to both use our current expertise and gain it new areas.
However, although the board is very invested in the mission, we focus more on how the organization is run than who we are helping. So, in order to feel a connection with people being served, I also look for more hands-on opportunities, like volunteering at a homeless youth shelter. I spend a few hours each month watching movies and making grilled cheese with the kids, giving me the chance to get to know them and care about them.
Volunteer opportunities will vary from organization to organization, so figure out what kind of experience you want and you’ll be able to give more.
Volunteering has been one of the great pleasures of my life. It has allowed me to connect with my community, tap into unknown talents, and begin a fulfilling career path. By communicating with the organization with which you are volunteering, you can ensure that not only will you get all those benefits—but you’ll also truly be making a difference.
Rebecca Andruszka is an activist and non-profit professional who has focused on social justice issues. She has extensive experience in the non-profit sector, doing everything from research and communications, to fundraising and project development. She is currently in a senior development position at a national advocacy organization, and is an active board member and volunteer with a number of local organizations. When Rebecca is not in committee meetings, she is probably playing with her dog in Brooklyn.More from this Author