by Todd Keithley
How hard could it be to work for nothing?
It might be more complicated than you think. Based on our experience working with nonprofit organizations, the key to having a phenomenal and inspiring volunteer experience is to treat it like a job. Unfortunately, not every volunteer does. We'll explore the implications of that below, but first, here are four questions you should answer as you conduct your search for volunteer opportunities.
1) Have you explored all your options?
How do you find the volunteer opportunity that suits you best? Be sure to look into a number of different positions and compare them. Unfortunately, nonprofit organizations can rarely afford to publicize their volunteer spots, while would-be volunteers rarely know how to find opportunities or advertise their skills. This problem—matching workers with jobs—exists in all sectors of the economy, but when money is involved the market tends to provide fast solutions. Until recently, matching volunteers with organizations had to be done by word of mouth.
Idealist.org solves the "volunteering problem" by allowing organizations to post their opportunities and allowing volunteers to post their profiles. Our easy-to-use database lets organizations and volunteers search for one another using any combination of geography, skills, languages, areas of interest, and time available. And the whole thing is free. On Idealist.org, you should be able to find a number of opportunities in the areas you're considering.
2) Have you evaluated your top choices?
Once you've put together a list of potential volunteer opportunities, you'll need to begin comparing. Avoid "giving it a try" and quitting if you don't like it; that doesn't do anyone much good. Instead, treat this process as if you were interviewing for a job. Meet with the volunteer manager and ask questions about the organization and its environment. Ask if you can speak with some of their other volunteers, or if you can spend a day shadowing another volunteer before you sign up. Ask to see a copy of the annual report (often you can download a copy from their Web site) or do a Google News search to find media reports on the organization.
3) What do you want to give?
More than anything else, organizations want a volunteer who comes to work on time. You'd be surprised how often people don't do this: volunteers cancel five minutes before their shift, end their "year abroad" after three months, or just forget to show up. Because they're not getting paid, some volunteers don't take their responsibilities seriously.
Every time a volunteer fails to show up, it's a lost opportunity for an organization that can ill afford it. But there's an easy way for you to avoid the problem: analyze your schedule; come up with a realistic number of hours; and don't promise yourself, in the heat of the moment, beyond your estimate. You can always increase your commitment after you've volunteered for a while.
4) What do you hope to gain?
Hope to gain quite a bit, but your first hope should be to donate your time and energy to an organization and a cause that you care about. In our work with various nonprofits, we have occasionally heard about "high-maintenance volunteers," people who put their own development and education before the goals of the organization, and who think that's okay because they're working for free.
You will profit immensely from your volunteer experience, whether you work once a month at a local homeless shelter or spend a year providing healthcare in Maharashtra. You'll develop new skills, new perspectives, new contacts and new opportunities, and you'll find inspiration and joy in what you do. There's nothing wrong with wanting such benefits, as long as your primary intent is to contribute to the organization's mission. Your watchwords should be flexibility, productivity, and dependability; if you want to make a difference, work hard.
This practical approach to volunteering will maximize the effectiveness of your idealism. Best of luck in your efforts, and I hope you enjoy a lifetime of service.