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Society and Community:
Volunteering for Beginners
Volunteerism is an honored tradition in the United States and around the world, touted as a celebration of the spirit of community involvement. According to the research group Independent Sector, the U.S. volunteer sector is equivalent to 9 million full-time workers. During the International Year of the Volunteer, 2001, over 10,000 organizations took part in the UN effort. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and the United Nations have measured involvement in dollar amounts, finding results in the billions of dollars.

Several international aid workers who have been profiled on NOW have traveled around the world to help those in need, but as volunteerism opportunities abound even in our own backyards, it's easy to do some good work nearer home.

Step 1: What Drives You?
Do you feel passionate about certain social issues such as homelessness or hunger?

Visit your library or the Internet and seek out more information about the issue. Look for local or national groups working to make a difference in your area. Even if the organization is in another state, it will be able to provide you with the number of a local chapter or point you to another group in your community working in your interest area. If you can't find an organization dealing with the issue locally, consider starting your own.

Community & Social Contacts
Perhaps you start from a desire to work with others. They may be your friends or business contacts, or maybe you are looking for new friends. For some people, the issue is not as important as the community of people who work on it.

The best way to make these contacts is to walk right into the organization — a library, a soup kitchen, training facility, or a political office — and find out who organizes volunteers. You can tell a lot by meeting the volunteer coordinator and any volunteers who happen to be on duty.

Don't forget to include your family. Clean up a neighborhood park with your mother. Spend a morning at a soup kitchen with your children. You'll find that volunteering is not only a fun family-bonding experience but a great way to teach children the importance of giving back to the community.

The benefits of volunteering are many, for everyone involved. Ask your employer for advice. Many companies give employees paid time off to volunteer and will often publicize their employees' community service.

Step 2: Work With Your Favorite Skills

Even in the volunteer world, pitching your best skills is an art. You won't last long if your volunteer work is something you dislike. So tell them what you like, what you do well, and what would balance nicely against your paid job. Are you a computer-networking pro? A natural with kids? A super home-improvement expert? A fabulous decorator? Do you enjoy putting on makeup? Sewing tiny flowers onto costumes? Analyzing budgets? Providing strategic consultation to politicians? Stripping paint, or putting it back on? Organizing a neighborhood block-watch patrol to fight crime? Passing out leaflets? Producing plays?

Nonprofit, grassroots, human-services, educational, religious, and political organizations have all these openings — and more.

Your volunteer service can be part of a structured organization-or purely individual. If you know word processing inside and out, why not spend an evening sharing that knowledge with a teenager learning to format a resume for the first time? She'll never forget you for it and may come to work for you. Remember:

Doing what comes naturally to you is great. But consider the perks of signing up for something new. If you usually work all day in an office, try spending an evening outside playing with children or a weekend cleaning up your neighborhood streets. It will expand many horizons in your life.

Don't be afraid to sign up for something you are interested in learning, such as crisis-counseling or literacy-tutoring. If you are willing to invest the time it may take for an organization to train you, you may learn a brand new field while making a difference in people's lives.

Step 3: Budget Volunteer Hours Wisely

Be sure to approach volunteer opportunities realistically. Are you looking for a one-time opportunity or a long-term commitment? It is important to assess this before you begin so that you do not over-commit yourself or let down the organization by not keeping a promise. Be sure that you understand the type of hours or commitment that a project is looking for and feel confident that you can give that before signing up.

Organizations are usually looking for volunteers to play different roles, so be sure to check out all the options and find the one that best fits your schedule. Consider starting out slowly and increasing your hours down the line.

Many people are reminded of their wish to volunteer during holiday seasons, but this is when organizations might have an excess of help. If you want to volunteer as a family effort during the holiday, remember to contact the organization in advance. Otherwise, time your work for the lean season.

Step 4: Discover New Opportunities That Await You

See what the Web can do for you. Open the classified section of your local paper. Check out the bulletin boards in your neighborhood cafe. Contact your church, temple, or mosque. Or just start calling the local agencies you're interested in.

Many cities even have large nonprofit volunteer clearinghouses that do all the initial research for you, making it even easier for you to get involved. Once you start looking, you may be surprised at how many opportunities exist in your hometown. NOW has prepared a nationwide map of ways to help the hungry.

More and more nonprofit organizations now have a presence on the Web complete with information on how to get involved locally. Free online volunteer-matching tools exist, which allow you to type in your zip code and interests and find specific, up-to-date volunteer needs with the click of a mouse. See the organizations listed at left.

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