I recently made a list of every volunteer engagement I could recall doing, dating back to high school. I was pleasantly surprised by its length and diversity. Since turning 16, I’ve:
- Performed trail maintenance at a popular nature preserve
- Volunteered at a no-kill animal shelter
- Offered companionship once per week to an older couple without kids
- Taught English to recently resettled asylees
- Hosted multiple neighborhood block parties
- Sat on the board of my neighborhood association
I don’t say all this to brag. I actually don’t volunteer that much. Individually, these commitments demanded just a few hours of time each month. Rather, my own experience underscores just how easy it is to get out there and volunteer for organizations and causes that align with your values and interests.
My experience, of course, is that of just one person. Every individual volunteer brings a unique mix of interests, skills, and scheduling flexibility to the table. The opportunities that suit me might not suit you, and vice versa.
Fortunately, the world is filled with deserving organizations that welcome the efforts of unpaid volunteers. No matter how your strengths stack up to other volunteers’ or which causes you care about most, you’re certain to find multiple ways to give back without compromising your values or ethics.
Good Places to Volunteer Your Time
The following is a sampling of specific organizations and general causes that deserve your time and talents. Remember that opportunities may vary by location, season, and your skill set.
1. Your Local Public Library
Public library systems desperately need volunteers — and not just for drudgery like restocking shelves. For example, volunteer opportunities with LA County Library, one of the United States’ largest library systems, include:
- Cleaning and sorting library materials and displays
- Helping out with children’s programming, such as story times
- Providing technical support for library patrons
- Raising money for library programming
Visit your public library system’s website to read about ongoing opportunities or inquire at your local branch.
2. Your Local Parks & Recreation Department
Your city or county parks and recreation department almost certainly need volunteers, especially for seasonal events like spring cleanups, leaf collection, and picnic area maintenance.
For example, the Arlington, Texas Parks & Recreation department offers recurring and one-time volunteering opportunities including:
- Coaching recreational league teams
- Teaching classes at parks and recreation facilities
- Helping with park cleanup events
- Staffing special events hosted at parks
- Maintaining garden beds
Many municipalities have in-house volunteer coordinators. Check with yours for details about outdoor volunteering opportunities in your neck of the woods.
3. Your Local Community Center
Most sizable municipalities have at least one centrally located community center. Bigger cities typically have many community centers, some of which — such as youth centers and senior centers — may focus on specific audiences or types of programming.
No matter how it’s structured, your local community center or community center network is probably teeming with service opportunities. The multilocation Chicago Youth Centers invite volunteers to:
- Mentor and help students with homework
- Supervise after-school programming
- Host arts and crafts projects
- Help maintain grounds and gardens
- Help with building maintenance projects
Visit your local community center or municipal website to learn about volunteer opportunities in your area. If you already spend time at your community center, stop by the front desk or volunteer coordinator’s office.
4. Local Faith Organizations
You can contribute your time and skills to faith-adjacent projects that align with your values or service priorities regardless of whether you regularly attend worship services for a particular tradition. Faith groups of all types routinely support or direct local, national, and global charitable activities. The best way to participate in a long-distance disaster relief effort without doing a lot of the organizational grunt work yourself may well involve hitching your efforts to a church, synagogue, or mosque spearheading such an effort.
If you don’t already belong to a faith community, talk to friends or family members who do. Every congregation has different priorities, and many smaller houses of worship lack the resources to post all the charitable work they do online.
5. Nearby State & National Parks
Public funding and user fees only go so far for state and federal park systems. Their volunteers provide sorely needed maintenance and programming support.
Beyond the physical and mental health benefits of volunteering in the great outdoors, park volunteers may have financial incentives to participate. The National Park Service, for example, issues free interagency Volunteer Passes to volunteers who amass more than 250 service hours. Depending on how often you visit national parks that charge entry fees, your Volunteer Pass’ annual value could easily exceed $100.
Visit Volunteer.gov to find service opportunities at federally managed parks and natural areas near you. Check your official state park system website or state volunteer portal to find opportunities at state-managed parks.
6. Animal Shelters & Adoption Centers
There’s no better way to indulge your love of animals than to provide aid and comfort to those in dire straits.
Independently operated and publicly run animal shelters and adoption centers abound, but quality varies widely, with abuse rampant at sketchier facilities. If possible, look to nationally renowned animal protection societies such as the Animal Humane Society and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA).
In-shelter volunteer opportunities are often physically demanding — think cleaning cages, carrying litter, and hoisting animals. You may be required to commit to minimum service terms and workloads; the Animal Humane Society requires volunteers to work one two- to four-hour shift per week for one year, for instance. Then again, that’s long enough to fall in love with your next household pet.
7. Food Banks & Homeless Shelters
Food and housing insecurity are facts of life in high-cost urban areas and economically depressed rural areas alike. If you’d like to do more than leave the occasional bag of canned food at your nearest food bank or send a check to your local overnight shelter, you need to show up — literally.
Every organization is different, but opportunities to provide direct support to client populations shouldn’t be hard to find. For example, the Atlanta Community Food Bank invites volunteers to:
- Inspect and package food donations
- Supervise and restock open-to-the-public food shelves
- Participate in community gardening projects
- Liaison with partner agencies that distribute donated food
Many food bank volunteer positions are physically demanding — the Atlanta Community Food Bank warns prospective volunteers they’ll need to lift loads as heavy as 40 pounds — so plan accordingly.
8. Disaster Relief Organizations
We see horrifying images of natural and human-caused devastation every day on the news and social media. If you’d like to do more than text a $10 donation to the Red Cross or send a modest annual donation to UNHCR or Doctors Without Borders, consider taking the next step and becoming a disaster volunteer.
Don’t book a one-way flight to the disaster zone, though. Untrained, unorganized volunteers can do more harm than good in hard-hit areas. That’s doubly true in the immediate aftermath of natural disasters and amid ongoing violent conflict; in both cases, lives are at stake. That’s why the bulk of the Red Cross’s volunteer openings require some sort of preexisting credentials such as paramedic certifications, special training, or extensive supervision by highly trained staff or volunteers.
Still, opportunities abound. And you don’t necessarily have to leave the country. The Red Cross provides local support services like post-fire assistance to families who’ve lost their homes in single-structure blazes.
9. Human & Civil Rights Organizations
This catchall category encompasses organizations devoted to lifting up individuals from historically disadvantaged groups, such as:
- Immigrants and refugees
- LGBTQ+ individuals
- Members of racial and ethnic minority groups
- Individuals struggling with addiction and other chronic diseases
- Individuals who can’t afford legal representation
Service opportunities are as diverse as the groups themselves. For volunteers without specialized skills or credentials, these might include:
- Driving clients without reliable transportation to appointments or places of employment or helping them navigate public transit systems
- Translating for non-English-speaking clients
- Tutoring clients, especially with language instruction
- Providing companionship for homebound clients and those adjusting to life far from home, such as refugees and domestic abuse survivors
- Sorting in-kind donations
- Helping out at fundraisers
For volunteers with more specific skills, service opportunities might include:
- Providing administrative support or creative services, such as Web design or video production
- Providing pro bono professional services, such as legal or accounting services
- Providing counseling and therapy for clients with emotional needs
10. Political Organizations & Advocacy Groups
This is another catchall category that’s great for prospective volunteers looking to live their values and address issues that matter to them. It includes:
- Political candidates and elected officials
- Political action committees and issue-driven nonprofits, such as environmental justice groups
- Community advocacy groups, such as groups devoted to neighborhood beautification or crime prevention
- Local political organizations including neighborhood associations and homeowners association boards
The variety of service opportunities in this category is bit as expansive as the human and civil rights category above. If you’re looking for a resume-building role or seeking a creative outlet that complements your 9-to-5 job, start here.
Just be sure to vet political action committees and issue-driven groups in particular. Many seemingly aboveboard organizations plow the bulk of funds they raise back into fundraising activities — or, worse, into their executives’ pockets.
11. Arts & Cultural Organizations
Not all patrons of the arts have the resources to underwrite a theatrical production or furnish a new museum wing. Even the best-funded cultural organizations rely on volunteers — patrons of more modest means, if you prefer.
Uncredentialed volunteers can fill unskilled and semi-skilled roles, such as:
- Ticket sales
- Food and beverage service
- Helping patrons find their way around museums or venues
Volunteers with in-demand credentials or experience — for instance, teachers and trained artists — can assist with higher-value tasks, such as running seminars and guiding tours. Modestly resourced cultural organizations, such as community theaters, typically rely heavily on volunteers to fill roles that would earn full-time pay elsewhere, such as set design, lighting, and videography.
Most arts and cultural organizations list volunteer opportunities on their websites. These days, that’s the best way for organizations that need helpers to find them. To find under-the-radar institutions, such as community theaters without a marketing staff, talk to friends and colleagues who are involved in the local scene.
12. Adult Education
If you aspire to a career in education or seek teaching experience in your field of choice, look for opportunities to lead or support adult education. Organizations like the Minnesota Literacy Council, which has counterparts across the United States, are eternally in need of competent volunteers to work with English-as-a-second-language learners and individuals seeking basic language and computer literacy skills.
When seeking out adult education opportunities, let your skill set and time constraints guide you. Stick to subjects you’re comfortable with — better yet, certified or otherwise credentialed in — and avoid overwhelming time commitments.
13. Retirement Homes & Long-Term Care Facilities
Nursing homes and long-term care facilities have sufficient staff to address residents’ basic feeding, clothing, and hygiene needs. But without volunteer support, residents’ higher-order needs — such as companionship, socialization, creativity, and even exercise — often fall by the wayside.
Although needs vary, most nursing homes and adult care facilities accept volunteers in some capacity. For example, Episcopal Homes, a Minnesota-based care facility chain, welcomes volunteers who:
- Teach basic technology skills
- Help residents exercise
- Deliver mail
- Facilitate social activities, such as trivia and bingo
- Buddy up with residents in need of companionship
Be mindful of any commitment requirements. It’s common for care facilities to ask volunteers to commit to significant service terms, if only to maintain some semblance of stability in residents’ lives.
Laying out all my past volunteering was gratifying and a little surprising. Frankly, I’d forgotten about a few of the older one- or two-off engagements, and the list of organizations to which I’ve donated my time over the years wound up longer than I expected.
And I don’t volunteer that much. At the height of my volunteering campaign, in 2017 and 2018, I donated four or five hours of my time, at most, per week. If I can look back on a relatively meager collection of volunteer engagements and feel like I’ve made a difference in my community, so can you. It doesn’t take much to start giving back — and you might be surprised, as I was, at how much you enjoy it.