I believe that volunteering and donating is a gift to ourselves and to others.
Volunteer for the Right Reasons
To volunteer for a cause is a privilege that should be treated with respect. I believe in volunteering for the right reasons. It must be a dual positive experience between the giver and the receiver. Too many times, good hearted and well-meaning people give of themselves in a way that is maybe more destructive than constructive. We think that we’re expected to help, and we are. We must, however, be honest with ourselves before we jump into volunteer roles. Are we truly adding to the community or are we taking from it? Ask yourself a few questions and do some research first.
Why Do I Want to Volunteer?
When a volunteer opportunity presents itself, we might want to dive right in. It serves us and the volunteer organization if we pause and ask a few questions.
- Are you taking part because it will look good on your resume?
- Is it an ‘opportunity’ that your work colleagues set up and you feel obligated?
- Is it your church group initiative and you don’t want to look bad in the community?
- Is this a cause you believe in, or would you rather volunteer somewhere else?
- Have you researched the volunteer position?
- Is it a good fit for you so that your enthusiasm matches your effort?
What is Important to You?
It’s a bit like looking for a job. You want to find something that you’ll enjoy. When you find a project that’s a good fit, you’re more inclined to feel fulfilled while you help a community. It could be an opportunity for personal growth.
Consider Your Skill Set
Consider using your professional or recreational skills and look for volunteer opportunities where you can put them to use. If you're a carpenter, you'll be an excellent addition to a charity that builds homes for veterans, but you probably won’t do as well as an arts and crafts coordinator at a senior center.
As a social worker you are an asset to a charity youth organization but might lose a finger trying to help the carpenter build that house. You want to offer your strengths, not your weaknesses.
Where Can I Apply My Skills?
Volunteer Professional Services:
Fundraising – anyone in sales, banking, finance or marketing could help to fundraise and use their persuasive sales and marketing skills to raise money for a nonprofit.
Planning – an event planner may offer their skill to plan a fundraising event.
Personal care – a hairdressers can do haircuts at homeless shelters. When I was in Beauty School my class volunteered at a local senior center. We did manicures and pedicures for the guests at the center.
Homework help – teachers or retired teachers could volunteer at a library or youth center and help school children with their homework.
Volunteer Hobby Skills:
Winter wear – if you love to crochet or knit, consider making beanies for a homeless shelter.
Artists – many seniors love to do arts and crafts. An artist could teach a painting, pottery or drawing class at a senior center, home for the disabled or even at a youth after school program.
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Gardening – if you love gardening, you could offer to help create a vegetable garden at a community center which might support a food bank.
Help at a Fundraiser
What Environment Works for You?
Consider your preferred work environment.
- Are you good with younger or older people?
- Are you a team player or do you work better on your own?
- Do you want to be outside doing physical work or are you more comfortable behind a computer?
- Are you good at delegating and leading or are you better at taking instruction?
Volunteer at a Food Bank
Budget Your Time Honestly
Calculate your free time versus time you need to honor your personal commitments. Volunteering, especially with children, requires a level of dedication, time and sometimes consistency. Be realistic and decide on how many volunteer hours you can spare per week.
Your potential volunteer hours may depend on where you are in your life. Are you a student on summer break or a full-time parent with a full-time job? Obviously, the student has more time.
Some volunteer opportunities may ask you to schedule and commit to a specific time every week. While others may invite you to contribute as and when you can. If you are really strapped for time, you might prefer to help with an annual event. When the event is over you're free until the next year.
Before you look for volunteer programs, and definitely before you offer your time, make sure you can commit. It’s frustrating and embarrassing if you offer to help and then back pedal because of a schedule conflict. Ask a lot of questions prior to committing. It’s tough for an organization to find helpers and it's disappointing if you leave them without help at the last minute.
Be Aware of Scam Volunteer Programs
There are many shady programs out there. Protect yourself by checking a few facts online. If a program is vague with their answers or if they get edgy with your line of questioning, you might want to avoid them. Any reputable volunteer program or charitable organization will be completely transparent.
Questions to ask the volunteer program could include:
Do you publish your financial statements or tax returns online?
- The Council of Nonprofits publishes their financials on their website.
- It’s ok to ask how an organization is funded or what their charitable status is. You could even ask for their annual report.
Does this volunteer position rob a local person of a paid job?
- Beware of programs that are simply looking for free labor. You want to help a community, not hurt it financially by taking work from a local laborer.
- If the program advertises that no prior knowledge or experience is needed, you can question why they don’t use local paid labor instead. Is the program just looking for free labor?
Avoid programs or organizations that ask you to pay them to volunteer.
- You might have to pay your own travel and accommodation expenses if you volunteer abroad but you shouldn’t be asked to pay any money directly to the charitable organization.
Ask for testimonials and check reviews.
- Ask if the program will connect you with past participants. Online reviews could be misleading and may even be written by the program themselves.
How much education will you receive prior to your first day as a volunteer?
- You need to know what is expected of you and if there are any local laws or safety protocols that you must follow.
How involved is the charity in the community and do they include local community leaders in their decision-making processes?
- The community’s needs should be the driving force behind the program. For instance, let's say a community needs a dedicated clinic to address public health, but the volunteer program concentrates on agriculture in a community of successful farmers. Clearly the program is misguided here and didn’t listen to the needs of the community.
- You could ask the organization for proof of work that they have already achieved and how that work positively impacted the community.
Research a Charitable Organization
In the USA there are several online resources where you can verify or research a volunteer program or charitable organization including the Better Business Bureau and the IRS.
Charity watch grades organizations using a letter rating system from A to F. A rated charity organizations typically spend 75% of their money on their programs and only 25% on administrative fees.
Better Business Bureau
At the BBB you can look up reviews or complaints if any are recorded. Charity and volunteer companies are listed on the BBB but only if they choose to be listed.
Charity navigator monitors financial transparency and accountability.
National Association of State Charity Officials
You can contact your state's ‘Office of the Secretary of State Charities Division’ or the ‘Office of the Attorney General Consumer Protection Division’ to report or vet a charitable organization.
Tax Exempt Organization Search
You can check the tax exempt status of an organization at the IRS.
Please remember, volunteering is a privilege, and you should be grateful that the recipient trusts you to enter their world of need. However, be responsible and realistic. You want your volunteer hours to leave a positive impact.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2022 Celeste Wilson