Last year, 62.6 million people volunteered — and I'm one of them. Since I started volunteering in college, I've donated hundreds of hours to at least 10 different organizations. I choose to give my time because I find it deeply rewarding. It feels good to put energy into a cause that gives back to your community.
It also requires a lot of commitment. If you are ready to take the plunge, a little research and a bit of soul searching will go a long way. Here are five tips to get you started.
1. Consider why you want to volunteer.
A big reason, perhaps the main reason, we choose to volunteer is because we want to give back. Few things are more satisfying than channeling your energy into a cause you believe in or putting in hard work to accomplish a goal. But there's more to it than that. Giving is also about receiving, and it's important to identify the benefits to you, beyond simply giving back.
Volunteering may enable you to awaken dormant skills or practice a hobby in a more meaningful way. You'll also make new friends, professional contacts, and probably have some fun. It can also allow you to stretch into a new role or explore potential career paths. (Just be realistic about your skills and don't promise something you can't deliver.)
It may sound selfish, but these are important considerations! Articulating personal and professional motives will help you find a good fit. Besides, you're about to give away your most valuable possession — your time — so don't feel guilty.
2. Start with your passion.
If you're not sure where or how you want to give back, start with your passion. Maybe there's a problem in the world that you'd like to see solved or a cause you feel strongly about.
Think about your hobbies and what you like to do; your interests and favorite subjects to look up and read about. If you love growing and cooking fresh vegetables, for example, the local community garden may be a perfect fit.
If nothing feels right, ask family and friends who know you well for advice. You can also look for ideas on websites that match volunteers with opportunities (see list below). The answer is probably right in front of you — something you already do every day.
3. Do what you're good at.
Once you know the cause you want to work for, let your skills and strengths guide you. If working with your hands and getting dirty outdoors sounds fun, but sitting at a desk does not, that's good to know.
Do you thrive in a group or prefer working remotely or on your own? Maybe you want to work directly with the people who benefit from an organization's services or you are able to serve in an advisory role, sharing expertise that aligns with an agency's goals. Know what you do best and use it as a way to get involved.
4. Understand the details.
Once you've identified your area of interest and the skills you like to use, it's time to get tactical. Check the organization's mission statement and make sure its goals align with your values. Look at financials to see how funds are allocated and make sure their affiliations line up with your intentions. Find statistics about whom they serve and how they make an impact.
It's also a good idea to find out about an agency's reputation, so ask around or check with community centers and places of worship for information. Note that small organizations sometimes have a web presence that is basic or incomplete, but don't let that dissuade you — it usually means they focus more on their mission than marketing. Chances are there's someone in your town doing terrific work that would love to have you.
5. Start small.
There are many ways to spend your time. Some non-profits staff one-off projects that happen sporadically while others have ongoing needs they regularly schedule in advance. Some opportunities allow you to work offsite and communicate. To decide what works best, be realistic about the amount of time you have to give and don't over promise!
My best advice? Start off small and give a few hours at first. Part of being an effective volunteer, after all, is preventing burnout. Realize your ability to give has limits and draw boundaries that allow you to rest, recharge, and remain sane. This is especially true if you are working on the frontline serving people. It's simple, but true: You need to take care of yourself before you can take care of anyone else.
If you find that you've overcommitted, clear communication is key. It may be hard to initiate, but sometimes all you have to do is start the conversation. Talk to your supervisor and together come up with a solution. Just like a paying job, a volunteer position works best when both parties are content. And, if you must leave a position, make sure you give plenty of notice and follow through on any commitments you made.
Ready to volunteer? Here are a few ideas for where to start.
Have you volunteered? Share your experience with us in the comments!