Smart ways to match your interests and skills to a group that needs help.
I want to find a volunteering opportunity and start doing something good for the world, but it seems like every organization makes it a hassle to volunteer. At least that’s been my experience — maybe that’s just by virtue of being a single guy, too. Any advice?
D.G. / Los Angeles, California
Good for you! Let’s make 2018 the year of Meaningful Community Involvement!
First off, think about what you want from volunteering. Are you looking for a change from your paid work, or a chance to use those skills more meaningfully? Do you want to be in charge or follow instructions? Do you want to use your brain, or do routine tasks? Do you want to work with people or alone? What kind of time commitment can you make?
What’s something that lots of other people find boring or stressful — driving in the city, repetitive data entry, talking to dementia patients, making cold calls — that doesn’t bother you? (For paid or unpaid work, this question is often a better way to find your niche than “what’s your passion.”) Is there something you’re not getting enough of in your day-to-day life — time outdoors, time alone, a chance to explore different parts of the city? You’ll stay with a volunteer commitment longer if it meets multiple needs for you.
There are no wrong answers to these questions, except for self-deluding ones! Say no to “opportunities” that are not what you want. You will meet souls who are desperate for a warm body to fill a bake sale chair or, when you mention “IT,” just know you’d be perfect for their website redesign, never mind that you’re a database admin. Be firm.
In my experience, it’s easiest to sign on at a large organization with standard positions for volunteers, or in a more individualized role with a smaller group where you already have some kind of relationship. I’m a patient escort for Planned Parenthood, which is a great example of the former: All escorts get the same training, wear the same vests, and it processes new volunteers a couple of times a year. I also serve at Central Square Theater as a committee member, occasional post-show speaker, and general “friend of the company,” which came about after I attended some shows and made friends with its staff and artists. It’s that swampy middle you want to avoid, calling up some medium-sized group you’ve never done anything with and telling them you want to “help out.” Barring a rom-com level of good fortune, that approach doesn’t go anywhere.
You probably have friends with interesting volunteer projects, or who work at places that use volunteers, so ask around. It’s like activating your network to help you find a job or a romantic partner, except with better odds of success (and less chance of things getting weird if it doesn’t work out).
Also, don’t forget the simple concept of helping people more on the day-to-day. Focus not just on being “nice,” but finding specific ways to live your values. Let people know you’re available for informational interviews about your profession, or teaching them how to cook, or reading their application essays, or whatever. Maybe you baby-sit so friends can have time for their own volunteer work. Be creative!
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