7 tips to get more out of volunteering
Members of SF Goodwill’s Volunteer Corps (photo by Greg Habiby).
By J.D. Lasica
At some point, most Americans get the urge to volunteer in their community. But it’s not always easy to do. What organization deserves your all-too-limited free time? What’s the best way to research a charity or cause? Where do you begin?
Well, I began looking for answers by seeking out the advice of Joanne Fritz, Ph.D., About.com’s Guide to Nonprofit Charitable Organizations, who’s written quite a bit about volunteering. We spoke by phone from her home in Tucson, Ariz.
Whether you’re thinking of volunteering at Goodwill, at another nonprofit or at a community organization, these seven tips should help you, or a family member, get more out of the volunteer experience:
1Find a match for your passion. Instead of going in with the general thought that volunteering would be nice to do, get specific and identify the specific issues you’re passionate about. What subjects or causes excite you: women’s rights, poverty, animal welfare, helping children? What brings you a warm, fuzzy feeling? Start there.
2Focus on your skills. Volunteering can be about serving the hungry at the local food bank. But it can also encompass thousands of other options. What are you good at? You may want to plant a garden or help repair a swing set. Or optimize a nonprofit’s website or Salesforce database. Or organize an event, or take photos or video. “A lot of people have fabulous skills from their work life that life that nonprofits desperately need,” Joanne said. Don’t volunteer at a nonprofit, she said, if you won’t be allowed to do the things you love to do. “It’s important to remain focused on what you want to do and not get sucked into what the organization wants you do if you’re not into it.”
3Be realistic about your time. Consider how much time you really have to devote to volunteering. Pace yourself, and don’t bite off more than you can chew, or both you and the nonprofit will wind up unhappy. “Don’t overcommit,” she said. “It’s better to under-commit and scale up.” One innovative new service, San Francisco-based Sparked, helps people engage in “microvolunteering,” giving people with short spurts of free time the chance to help nonprofits with suitable online projects, often by using a smartphone when they’re on the go, on a train or waiting in line.
4Do your homework. Plan instead of spreading your volunteer time among multiple organizations haphazardly. Head to the Volunteer Center or visit an online volunteer matching service to find volunteer openings that are right for you. Avoid bad charities by covering your bases. Joanne suggested looking for organizations that have a track record of having a positive impact in the local community — like Goodwill Industries, which has served the Bay Area for 95 years. “Goodwill is a fabulous organization with a wide variety of projects and interesting opportunities,” Joanne said. She also gave a shout-out to the Girls Scouts (Joanne was director of development for The Girl Scout Council of Greater St. Louis several years ago). Once you’ve zeroed in on a prospect, arrange a meeting with the nonprofit’s volunteer coordinator. “Think of it as a reverse job interview,” she said. “You have to see if you’re a good fit.”
5Be open, patient and flexible. If you’re a high-powered executive, you may want to hold off on offering organization officials advice on how to do their job. Be prepared for challenges, and be willing to rethink how you’ve done things in the past. “If they deserve you, they’ll be ready to use you effectively,” Joanne said.
6Be open to changes, especially in yourself. Volunteering can bring you in contact with people of different backgrounds, cultures and education levels. Your expectations and assumptions may crumble, even as your horizons expand as you witness the dignity of people overcoming difficult circumstances. “My daughter was in the Peace Corps and now works for an international NGO, so it really did shape her,” Joanne said.
7Don’t disappear. “If you’re having a bad experience, it’s very tempting just to leave or just disappear,” Joanne said. “Instead, the volunteer should speak up about what’s going wrong so the nonprofit and volunteer coordinator can learn from the experience.” Most of her volunteer experiences have been positive ones, but she recalls the time when “a volunteer coordinator just didn’t get me and sent me to volunteer with someone who’d been there for a long time. When I showed up, she told me, ‘I don’t need anybody, please go away.’ Needless to say, it didn’t work out.”
Hope that gets you started. Do you have other tips, or questions? Please comment below!