You’ve sized up the benefits of volunteering, looked over your schedule, and decided you have both the time and desire to give back to your community.
Now comes the difficult part: finding volunteer opportunities that are right for you.
In truth, finding worthwhile and rewarding volunteer opportunities isn’t a monumental challenge. But it quickly becomes apparent that there are more organizations that need help than there are hours in the day of any given volunteer, however intrepid or efficient they may be.
It’s useful — perhaps vital — for every would-be volunteer to understand the sorts of volunteer work that play to their strengths, interests, and capacities before making a final list of opportunities to pursue. Armed with such an understanding, you’ll find the process of applying for specific volunteer opportunities — and living up to any obligations you accept — far more manageable.
How to Find Volunteer Opportunities That Are Right for You
Use these tips to find and vet suitable volunteer opportunities in your area — or farther afield, if you can bear the expense and time needed to travel. Some of these strategies simply ask you to see the needs and opportunities hiding in plain sight, while others require a more intentional approach to ensure you’re pursuing sorts of volunteer engagements that match your skills, interests, and values.
1. Look for Opportunities Through Your Employer
If you work for a decent-sized organization, there’s a good chance your employer has some sort of volunteer program — either a formal program featuring organized volunteer days that double as off-site team-building opportunities or a more flexible program that allows employees to receive paid time off while volunteering with organizations of their choice.
Your company should include details on volunteering partnerships and opportunities in its employee handbook and employee Web portal. If you can’t find what you’re looking for in those places, talk to your human resources contact or in-house volunteer coordinator.
2. Look to Organizations You Already Give Time To
Your routine probably involves organizations that rely on volunteers. If you have school-age kids, you’re familiar with extracurricular school clubs, sports teams and clubs not directly affiliated with your kids’ school, and faith-based youth groups. You may also spend time at your local community center or YMCA.
You’re already giving your time to these organizations. Why not make it official by becoming a volunteer?
3. Identify Your Values
What motivates you to give back? Make a list of the values that drive you, or the issues you care about, and then look for organizations with complementary missions and opportunities.
For instance, if your primary motivation is to forge social connections with peers, you might look to organizations such as school groups that require interaction with other parents, neighborhood or homeowners association boards that involve lots of contact with neighbors, or collaborative projects such as Habitat for Humanity builds or litter cleanups.
If you’re motivated to serve the less fortunate, you might target organizations that work with housing-insecure populations, people with disabilities, recent immigrants, or members of historically disadvantaged groups.
Motivations for volunteering are as diverse as the volunteers harboring them. Whatever yours are, there’s an organization out there that needs your help.
4. Identify Pressing Needs in Your Community or the World
Use your values to prioritize the needs you’ve already observed in your community, state, country, or planet.
Distressed by your city’s housing crisis? Volunteer at a homeless shelter or food bank.
Overwhelmed by the impact of a natural or human-caused disaster you saw in the news? Reach out to aid organizations and pitch in for the recovery.
Dissatisfied with the discourse around a particular political issue? Contribute your time and talents to advocacy organizations or campaigns aligned with your beliefs.
5. Put Your Existing Skills to Good Use
Align your volunteering with your existing skill sets. Most of my volunteering engagements follow this pattern. For instance, I jumped at the chance to maintain park trails because I love being outside, and I enjoy summarizing research papers because I’m a competent writer.
Bear in mind that you needn’t limit your search to organizations whose primary functions align with your skills. Most nonprofit organizations also need many of the same skills and services that for-profit companies ask of their paid employees. If you have Web development or graphic design skills, for instance, pretty much any nonprofit would jump at the chance to hire you as a volunteer.
6. Consider Opportunities to Build Skills or Connections
You can also try the opposite tack. Most volunteer-reliant nonprofits aren’t picky about who can volunteer. As long as you pass a background check if it’s required, and can commit to showing up when you’re supposed to, organizations looking for volunteers won’t scrutinize your resume or call up professional references (although personal references may be another story).
Under the right circumstances, volunteering can stand in for entry-level paid work when none is available and you can’t find suitable paid internships. Particularly during economic downturns, employers look askance on bare resumes. If you’re pursuing a career change or looking for a first career-track job after graduating from college, volunteering may earn you that crucial first resume-grade experience.
7. Try to Involve the Whole Family
Many parents who volunteer turn giving back into a family affair. Community service is a great way to teach kids the value of altruism and underscore the inequities and injustices that permeate modern society. It’s also an opportunity to spend more time with your family.
Look for volunteer engagements that welcome people of all ages and abilities, and schedule time for the whole family to participate — whether that means spending an afternoon picking up trash on the side of the highway, a week in a faraway flood zone, or a semester hosting a foreign exchange student in your home.
8. Use a Reputable Resource
Simply Googling “volunteer opportunities in [your hometown]” is not the best way to find high-quality engagements that meet the criteria set out above. It is a great way to expose yourself to lots of questionable “opportunities” and outright scams.
Instead, use reputable online and real-world resources to zero in on suitable, aboveboard community service opportunities. VolunteerMatch connects prospective volunteers with nearby organizations that need free labor, both skilled and unskilled. Your city or county website may have a section for prospective volunteers too.
Other places to look include:
- Bulletin boards at local community centers and houses of worship
- State and local social services agencies
- Friends, family members, and colleagues — it never hurts to ask folks where they volunteer their time
- Nonprofit aid organizations and business associations
9. Vet Prospective Charities Carefully
Do your due diligence on prospective volunteer opportunities before you apply. Donors use Charity Navigator to find nonprofits they can trust not to waste or misuse their money; volunteers can use it to find nonprofits that won’t waste their time or talents.
Charity Navigator collects detailed information about registered nonprofits and issues ostensibly unbiased ratings covering key metrics and practices such as board independence, asset management, outside auditing, executive compensation, conflicts of interest, and the share of funding devoted to program activities versus noncore activities such as administration and marketing.
10. Don’t Bite Off More Than You Can Chew
Once you find a well-run organization that aligns with your availability, values, talents, and objectives, work with your contact there to set a volunteer schedule that fits your life.
If you’re exploring a recurring engagement — say, a weekly or biweekly commitment — think carefully about how much time you can afford to donate. It’s better to commit to shorter or less frequent volunteer hours up front and build from there than to take on an unmanageable workload right out of the gate. In 2017, I found myself in that boat, juggling the rest of my busy schedule with a time-intensive volunteering commitment I eventually had to scale back, to my volunteer coordinator’s chagrin.
Now that you know how to evaluate opportunities to volunteer your time and vet the organizations with which you’re thinking about working, you’re ready to build a list of ideal places to volunteer.
The fact that there are so many reputable organizations deserving of your time and talent is an unvarnished good thing. It also makes choosing where to invest your energy a bit overwhelming.
Try not to overthink the process of finding opportunities to volunteer. After all, volunteering is meant to be a rewarding, fun activity that improves the lives and communities of our fellow citizens — not yet another source of stress in the lives of the volunteers themselves.