Are you thinking of becoming a volunteer? Great idea! Here is a comprehensive volunteer guide to cover your questions, and help you get the journey started.
No matter if you want to become a professional activist or you just have some extra hours to fill. In this article, you will learn how to be a great volunteer in your immediate community and beyond.
Too short on time? Here are some links to get you started in the world of volunteering:
- What is a volunteer?
- Why being a volunteer rock?
- What kind of volunteer are you?
- Finding the right place to volunteer
- Preparing yourself for volunteering
- Going the extra mile
- Basics of volunteer fundraising
- Sharing your volunteer experience
- Infographic: What kind of volunteering suits you?
So, what is a volunteer?
A volunteer is a person who altruistically works in favour of a cause, nonprofit, or another individual. You may think volunteer organizations originated during the 1950s, they actually date back to the 17th century. Although the word “volunteer” was first used to describe soldiers who willingly entered the militia without being conscripted, its definition slowly expanded to include people who actively serve their community.
The first volunteer institution in the United States is the YMCA. It was founded in 1851 and remains open almost 200 years later. The International Red Cross was founded in 1863 in order to deal with the increasing human injuries related to modern warfare. Its expansion around the globe helped to create more volunteer organizations that promote causes ranging from workers’ rights to political campaigns.
Although social media may tell you things are worse than ever, this is actually the best time to become a volunteer – a growing number of nonprofits and causes need your skills and time to get greater results. Either at home or abroad, you can help others as long as you have the right stuff: attitude, drive, and patience (because Rome wasn’t built in a single day!).
Why is it awesome to be a volunteer?
You might not have noticed, but volunteers are e-v-e-r-y-w-h-e-r-e: animal shelters, political campaigns, grassroots organizations, music festivals, even startup events depend on volunteers to make a greater impact. Volunteering is not working for the sake of work, but to put your best abilities into something that you love.
- Combating depression, developing social skills (hello public speaking!), and providing purpose are some of the personal perks of becoming a volunteer. By working with others to achieve a common goal, you can create connections, improve your mood and reduce your stress levels. Some volunteering activities require you to be super active, which is good for you after all those hours sitting in front of your computer.
- Need a confidence boost? Volunteering will constantly encourage you to step out of your comfort zone and face challenges. Little by little, you will become more confident in your personal skills, learn how to work with others, and negotiate better.
- Volunteering can also benefit your immediate community. By becoming a volunteer at a local nonprofit, you will get to know your neighbours and make a difference in your own neighbourhood. Even the smallest efforts do make a difference in the long run, and you have the chance of meeting friends that live nearby. And if you have children or younger siblings, you can teach them the different ways in which you can be helpful and how to empathize with others.
- If you are considering a career transition, volunteering is a good way to introduce yourself to a new field and create connections. Some volunteering opportunities provide extensive training in different areas, which can allow you to learn and grow new abilities. Being a volunteer also involves practising soft skills such as public speaking, team coordination, and assertiveness which are very useful in the workplace.
- You can also get to know potential employers via volunteering. Some organizations are open to hiring their best volunteers as paid staff since they have proven they have the right skills and are passionate about their organization. But the best career perk of volunteering is networking with your peers and coordinators, as you will have the chance to collaborate with people that work in the industry of your interest and are keen to help others. Keep in mind that advancing your career is not the main goal of being a volunteer, but a potential benefit you may find.
What kind of volunteer are you?
Now that you know you want to be a volunteer, it’s time to head out to the nearest shelter and sign up, right?
Now it’s time to sit down, have a cup of coffee (or tea!), and decide what type of volunteer you want to be.
First of all, it is very important to estimate the time you can actually spend volunteering. Even two hours a week is very valuable, as it becomes over 100 hours of service per year. You should be very honest about the time you can commit to working for a cause because volunteering should be a pleasant experience and not a chore (plus you probably have enough of those).
Types of volunteers
The work of nonprofits is made possible thanks to the efforts of different kinds of volunteers, which include:
- On-site volunteers, who work directly with the community being served by the nonprofit.
- Remote volunteers, who work online to fulfil the digital needs of nonprofits (a perfect volunteer experience for those with limited mobility).
- Administration volunteers, who coordinate and manage resources for the organization.
- Training volunteers, who are seasoned volunteers that are capable of guiding teams of newer or less experienced volunteers.
- Full-time volunteers, who share their skills and services on a full-time basis. An example would be volunteer teachers. Full-time volunteers are usually paid (just like in a regular job) or are given a monthly allowance to cover their basic needs.
- Part-time volunteers, who share their skills and services in spare time.
- Crisis volunteers, who are specially trained people ready to travel to conflict zones to share their skills or expertise, such as doctors and disaster response teams.
Now that you know how much time you can volunteer and type of experience you are looking for, it’s time to get down to details:
- Are you open to work with adults, teens, children, or animals? Or are you looking for a remote position?
- What kind of activities would you enjoy doing?
- Do you want to work behind the scenes or are you interested in taking on a more public role?
- Are you a great team player or are you better working on your own?
- What set of skills can you offer to organizations?
- Do you have specific causes you would like to collaborate with?
Finding the right place to volunteer
Now that you know what kind of volunteer you can be, it is time to find the right organization. Although there are dozens of places where you can help, you should choose a place that matches your profile and makes the most out of your abilities.
If you are looking to help a nearby place, you can check the bulletin boards of close community centres, places of worship, museums, and service organizations. Don’t forget to check out the local online boards as well. You should also subscribe to the newsletter of your favourite local nonprofits because you never know when the perfect volunteer experience will become available!
If you are looking to expand your horizons both as a volunteer and as a traveller, browse online databases to find international or remote volunteering experiences. However, you should always double-check the references of overseas organizations and interview previous participants before committing to travel far away from home. A great volunteer abroad begins as a cautious volunteer at home!
From zero to hero: preparing yourself for volunteering
Although many organizations train their new volunteers, it is always good to prepare yourself on your own. Training to become a volunteer is often overlooked, and can cause stress during your first days helping out at a new organization.
If you have super high expectations regarding your volunteer experience, you might face a rude awakening. Keep yourself grounded by researching more about daily life at the organization where you are going to help out, and ask tips from former volunteers. But most of all, try to be patient as you learn the finer details of volunteering at a new place.
If your experience involves physical activity, hit the gym or double your daily steps. If you are short on time, plan your workouts beforehand. Focus on intensity rather than on minutes spent at the treadmill. If you have special dietary needs, stock up on snacks as your organization may not have the resources to get snacks that meet your nutrition requirements.
It is also smart to prepare your mind for volunteering. Helping others can be extremely draining, so make sure to learn relaxation techniques beforehand or start practising meditation. If you have a therapist, make sure to inform him/her about your future volunteering experience and ask for coping strategies. But most of all, keep in mind that it is quite normal to feel a bit low during your first days as a volunteer. New things are scary, but they don’t have to remain stressful!
Life of a volunteer
Your badge is shiny, your t-shirt is new, and you’re excited… Welcome to your first day as a volunteer!
As you take over your volunteer responsibilities, make sure to write down a personal goal you want to achieve with this experience. Keep it somewhere you can access easily in times when volunteering turns tough, and celebrate by crossing it off when you finally achieve it.
Pay attention during your training and ask as many questions as possible. Remember to bring extra paper and a pencil to your first day, as you might need to write down many notes. Ask your coordinator about their expectations, and tell them how you can help to achieve them. Find out if there are special instructions to access your organization’s workplace or digital files.
Talk to your fellow volunteers, and be friendly. Make sure to find where the volunteer break rooms, offices, and bathrooms are located… it is better to ask now than to get lost with a full bladder!
Finally, organize your volunteer tasks on a weekly and daily basis. That way you will make your coordinator’s life easier and it will be a breeze to report your activities. Many organizations have a task management system in place: some use Google sheets, others use physical whiteboards, and others use volunteer management apps. No matter the tool, remember that what makes task management effective is constant usage and proper planning. Don’t write down your activities as they come, try to plan them beforehand in order to become a more efficient (and highly appreciated) volunteer.
Going the extra mile as a volunteer
It’s one thing to be a volunteer, but another to be a GREAT volunteer. The challenge of going the extra mile is not to expect a reward, but to feel that you are helping. The feeling of being helpful is like a runner’s high – but for doing good deeds!
The best way to become an outstanding volunteer is to bring out the best of your peers and coordinators. Be a problem-solver: plan and achieve your tasks, give feedback, and focus when you need to focus. Being a great volunteer is not a popularity contest, but an efficiency challenge: can you solve problems when your organization’s plans go south? Can you think and act on your feet when a problem arises? Can you lead and inspire yourself and others when everyone is tired?
Remember that volunteering is a social experience. Network, get along and create meaningful connections with others. Don’t be afraid to be proactive and help with things that are not defined as tasks in the first place and feel free to come up with assets from your network (like extra volunteers, useful items, free services, mentors, etc.).
The basics of volunteer fundraising
It is quite possible that you will need to learn to fundraise during your volunteer experience. Maybe you need to be sponsored to go overseas, maybe your pet shelter needs new chew toys, but the fact is that nonprofits rely on donations to keep things running smoothly.
Being a great fundraiser begins with a large list of potential donors. You should try to approach as many donors as you can while keeping outreach costs as low as possible. Don’t be afraid to reach out to prospective sponsors, as the worst thing that can happen is for them to say no. Once you find potential leads, classify them as one-time or recurring sponsors in order to know when it’s a good time to reach out to them.
Help your organisation to improve or shape up their online presence: a clean site, an updated blog, and an active social profile are more than enough to keep donors happy and informed about where their money is going.
Show, don’t tell. Take pictures of the results of your volunteer work and share testimonials. Donors give money to make a difference and appreciate seeing it happen. If you were personally sponsored by a donor, send a thank-you note (not just an email!). If you are part of a large organization, suggest making a donor event as a thank-you at the end of the year.
Don’t forget to send a newsletter to your donors from time to time, as this will create a closer connection to them and they will see your ongoing commitment. Avoid the trap of out of sight, out of mind!
Taking care of yourself
It is important to keep yourself healthy throughout your volunteer experience. Keep it simple: eat right, stay hydrated, get enough sleep, and stretch your legs from time to time. If you are constantly on the move, take time to massage yourself and keep your muscles relaxed. If you are hurt in some way, let your coordinator know and take time to recover properly.
Mental exhaustion is very common among long-term volunteers. Try to meditate every day and to have strong boundaries between your volunteer experience and your real life. Exercise is good for your body and also for your mind, so try to get at least 30 minutes of daily physical activity. Open up about the ups and downs of your experience with your coordinator, and let them know if you are feeling low. And if you need professional help, don’t be afraid to ask for it.
Make sure to have a list of emergency numbers in case something goes wrong. If you ever feel that you are in a dangerous situation while volunteering, leave. Go to a secure place and call for help.
If you feel overwhelmed or less passionate about your volunteer experience, it is always up to you to cut down on the time or role you can fulfil. If you do need to redefine your commitment, give your coordinator enough time to find someone to fulfil your responsibilities (at the very least, you should give a two-weeks notice).
Giving forward after giving back: sharing your volunteer experience
Sharing your experience as a volunteer is a great way to give public feedback on the organization you are supporting and also spread the word about its goals. If you were a volunteer for a fixed term or event, it is always a good idea to write a blog about your day-to-day experiences which will later inspire others to volunteer as well.
Even if you had a less-than-stellar time while volunteering, sharing your story can help you to lift your spirits and maybe even convince you to try again.
You can also keep a private journal regarding your experience. The best reward of writing down your work as a volunteer is that it becomes a picture of you at that point of your life. Later on, you can reflect on the times you spent helping others and the many things you learned about yourself while being a volunteer.
Happy people give more, and giving more makes people happier. By becoming a volunteer, you are not only donating time for a cause, but also giving away a bit of yourself to find self-fulfilment. Happiness, it turns out, might be just a volunteer experience away!