How to find a satisfying and meaningful volunteer opportunity

Group Of Young People Stacking Their Hands

As we get ready to ring in 2015, I know there are a lot of people out there looking to lend some of their time as a volunteer – either to build experience for themselves, give back to their community, build their connections, or all of the above. Today I decided I would give some advice for those of us looking to get involved in a cause:

Get to know yourself and what you are looking for. Before you start searching for a volunteer opportunity, there are a few things you have to figure out about yourself:

  1. What are you looking to get out of this experience? There are lots of excellent reasons to seek out a volunteer opportunity. Perhaps you are really interested in a particular cause and want to dedicate your time to improving your community in a very specific way. Perhaps you are a student looking to build connections in your community and gain some valuable experience in a workplace setting. Perhaps you are a young professional looking to network with others who share your passion. All of these are great reasons to volunteer, but different opportunities will be geared toward these (and other) different goals, so it’s helpful to know where you fit in.
  2. What skills do you have to offer to a nonprofit or cause? You may have some special skills such as marketing, technology, or writing that you could offer to a nonprofit. Alternatively, you might be not have any experience, but a real interest in learning about a particular topic. Some nonprofits will have opportunities geared toward a specific skills set, and some are just looking for another set of hands. Even if a nonprofit isn’t looking for a seasoned professional, they will always appreciate a positive attitude, passion for their cause, and some basic organization/communication skills.
  3. How much time are you able to commit? It is really important to make a fair assessment of how much time you have to offer before you start looking for a volunteer opportunity. Making a commitment to a cause which you cannot follow through on because of time availability can actually hurt the cause you are trying to support. Be honest with yourself and with the organizations you hope to work with, and you can find an opportunity that works with your schedule.

Get searching! There are lots of different places to look for volunteer opportunities – luckily you don’t have to pick just one!

  1. Use an online matchmaking service. They’re not just for dating! Idealist.org in particular has a really robust database of opportunities, and allows you to search by your location and keywords, as well as how much time you have to spare. If you have a lot of experience or skills in a particular area, you might want to try something more specialized. The Taproot Foundation will connect skilled professionals with teams to work on pro-bono projects, while law firms tend to have many avenues for getting involved in pro-bono projects through groups such as Legal Aid.
  2. Ask around. If you are in college, your school may have an office for career development which could introduce you to volunteer and internship opportunities. Even if you are not in college, mentioning to friends and family that you are seeking an internship opportunity could spark someone’s interest, and you may find out that someone you know has a helpful experience or connection to share.
  3. Just reach out to a nonprofit or cause group that you are particularly interested in helping. While it’s entirely possible that they will not have any opportunities available that fit your specific availability and/or skill set, you won’t know until you ask!

Keep in mind…

  1. The first opportunity you find may not be the right one. There’s a lot of elements that go into having a meaningful volunteer opportunity – your interests and schedule must align with the cause you are working with in many different ways.
  2. It’s OK to say no. If you feel that a volunteer opportunity you had been pursuing, or even one you started, is no longer right for you, it’s OK to change your mind. Just be sure you do so politely and respectfully – for example if you are organizing an event, don’t put the organization in a tight spot by starting to plan something and then quitting at a crucial point in the planning process.
  3. It’s OK for a nonprofit to say no to you. Nonprofits do not always need volunteers – some rely on them heavily and some rely primarily on paid staff. Still others will not be able to provide the specific experience you are looking for (for instance, perhaps they are only seeking volunteers with a very specific skill set or availability). A nonprofit also may not have the resources or infrastructure to manage a large base of volunteers. Whatever their reason, if a nonprofit declines to offer you an internship or volunteer opportunity, it’s probably not personal and has more to do with their needs and resources. Don’t push the issue, but you should…
  4. Try, try again. If an opportunity doesn’t work out with one cause, it doesn’t have to mean the end of your volunteering days. Finding a good opportunity can be incredibly uplifting and rewarding. If you are passionate about making a difference in the world through your cause, don’t give up just because one event or opportunity didn’t work out. Live, learn, and pick yourself back up. The world needs you!

This entry was mainly focused on tips for getting involved as a volunteer, but I didn’t fully explore the many types of volunteer opportunities that are out there. I may save that topic for another week – stay tuned! Thanks again everyone for reading, and I hope that you have a very happy Holiday season!

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