How to Find Volunteer Opportunities
by Alllison N. Stitle
Volunteering can teach valuable life lessons while giving back to the community. Volunteering is likely a familiar term, but what exactly does it mean? “Voluntary work is defined as work without monetary pay or legal obligation provided for persons living outside the volunteer’s own household” (Anheier 2014, 257). Volunteer work can come in many shapes and sizes, such as “service to others as individuals and service to the community” (Moody 2008). Volunteering could be serving meals at a soup kitchen, walking dogs at an animal shelter, picking up trash at a park, or visiting seniors at a nursing home, and much more. There are many service opportunities in every community, but it is important to understand the impact, determine passions, assess availability, research suitable opportunities, and prepare.
Impact of volunteering
When thinking about volunteering, we may think of helping people in need, the worthwhile causes, and improving the community. Surprisingly, the benefits to the volunteer can be even greater. Giving time to help others can protect both physical and mental health by providing a sense of purpose, reducing stress, and improving self-confidence. The volunteer can make new friends, learn new skills, and positively impact the volunteer’s health. “Helping others produces positive psychological consequences for the helper, sometimes labeled ‘empathic joy’” (Bekkers and Wiepking 2011). “Giving to others can also help protect your mental and physical health. It can reduce stress, combat depression, keep you mentally stimulated, and provide a sense of purpose” (Help Guide n.d.). Mahatma Gandhi once said, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others” (BrainyMedia Inc n.d.).
“Follow your passion” is an overused phrase, but it can help guide prospective volunteers. Volunteering will not feel like a chore if it is a true passion. There are an enormous variety of opportunities, so determining areas of interest or passion will provide guidance. What if a prospective volunteer has no idea what she is passionate about? Imagine waking-up early on a Saturday, hopping out of bed, and excited to leave for a project with an overabundance of enthusiasm. Where are you heading, and what will you be doing?
An exercise that can be useful to budding philanthropists is called “Map Your Heartbreak – Change the World” (Learning to Give n.d.). The concept is that when something breaks your heart, you are drawn to take action and make a positive difference. This action ultimately makes a difference. The key is identifying your spark and then obtaining support from family, school, and community in order to thrive in volunteer endeavors. What is your spark? Do you enjoy spending time outdoors? Do you love to read? Do you prefer helping little kids or the elderly? Do you love art, science or sports? Your spark will motivate you to take action and make a difference.
Before seeking a volunteer opportunity, it is important to assess desired level of commitment and availability. Be honest about commitments that are not flexible and ensure reliable transportation. Do not promise availability after school when other obligations exist, such as homework, piano lessons, or soccer practice. Make detailed notes of the days of the week and hours you are available. Review this with your grownup to ensure support and transportation.
Seek volunteer options
Once you understand the concept of volunteering, the impact, know your spark and your availability, you are ready to buckle down and find a volunteer opportunity. How do you find options? “There may be other volunteer matching networks in your community through your local United Way, community foundations, service clubs, youth organizations, and corporations that promote employee volunteerism” (Freeman 2016).
If you are familiar with a particular nonprofit where you would like to serve, you can reach out directly. For example, if you have an interest in paleontology, you may consider contacting your local Children’s Museum or Science Center. In this scenario, the contact information of the volunteer coordinator may be found on the organization’s website. It is important to note that many organizations only accept volunteers who are 12 years or even older. Often children begin volunteering alongside their grownup.
If a particular organization does not come to mind, there are many online resources designed to bring together volunteers and causes such as:
- Volunteermatch.com (Volunteer Match n.d.)
- Independentsector.org (Independent Sector n.d.)
- Foundationcenter.org (Candid n.d.)
Are you affiliated with a faith-based organization such as a synagogue or church? If so, this might be a tremendous resource because, in the United States, “religious activities attract the most volunteers” (Anheier 2014, 120). Also, your community’s United Way may be a great resource for volunteer opportunities with the mission to “improve lives by mobilizing the caring power of communities around the world to advance the common good” (United Way n.d.).
When considering options, do not hesitate to utilize your network of family and friends. For example, are you interested in pediatric medicine, and your next-door neighbor works at a children’s hospital? Ask your neighbor if they could connect you with the volunteer coordinator at their hospital. Does your Aunt volunteer at the local Humane Society, and you are a huge dog lover? Perhaps you could join her for her next shift.
Prepare to volunteer
- Preparing to volunteer is much like preparing for a job. First, create a simple resume, including contact information, education, skills, personal attributes, and employment or volunteer history. Second, create a list of four references. Consider including a teacher, coach, neighbor, or scout leader. Be sure to ask permission and for preferred contact information for each personal contact.
- Study the organization for which you are interested in volunteering. Review the organization’s website to know the mission, understand program offerings, and recognize the size and scope of work. While preparing for an interview, reflect on why the organization is of interest and what you can contribute. This reflection will help you be genuine in your responses. Almost all interviewers ask if the interviewee has any questions. Come prepared with your availability and at least three questions.
- On interview day, dress to impress. No matter what the volunteer role will entail, dressing up shows respect for the organization and demonstrates interest and responsibility. It is imperative that interviewees are prompt, so plan to arrive fifteen minutes early.
- Once the impact of volunteering is understood, areas of interest are decided, availability is determined, suitable opportunities are researched, and the volunteer is prepared, it is time to get started making an impact.
Oprah Winfrey once said, “You have to find what sparks a light in you so that you in your own way can illuminate the world” (Learning to Give n.d.). What is your spark, and what type of volunteer opportunity will you seek in your journey to illuminate the world?
- Seek additional nonprofits in your community using (Guide Star, https://www.guidestar.org). Search nonprofits in your city and state. This will pull local nonprofits and their missions within the community.
- Points of Light is a nonprofit that provides resources and engages individuals to come together to take action through volunteering to solve serious social issues (Points of Light Foundation, https://www.pointsoflight.org).
- Five Tips for Sharing Your Motivation (Volunteer Match, https://blogs.volunteermatch.org/engagingvolunteers/2017/06/28/volunteer-interviews-5-tips-for-sharing-your-motivation/).
- Tips for being a successful volunteer (wikiHow, https://www.wikihow.com/Stand-Out-As-a-Successful-Volunteer).
- Anheier, Helmut K. 2014. Nonprofit Organization Theory, Management, Policy. New York: Taylor & Francis Group.
- Bekkers, Rene, and Pamala Wiepking. 2011. "A Literature Review of Empirical Studies of Philanthropy: Eight Mechanisms that Drive Charitable Giving." Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly 938-973.
- BrainyMedia Inc. n.d. Mahatma Gandhi Quotes. Accessed November 27, 2019. https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/mahatma_gandhi_150725.
- Candid. n.d. Foundation Center. https://candid.org/about/?fcref=lr.
- Freeman, Tyrone M. 2016. "Volunteer management." In Achieving Excellence in Fundraising, by Eugene R Tempel, Timothy L Seiler and Eva E Aldrich, 458. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
- Guide Star. n.d. Guide Star. Accessed November 27, 2019. https://www.guidestar.org/.
- Help Guide. n.d. Volunteering and the Suprising Benefits. https://www.helpguide.org/articles/healthy-living/volunteering-and-its-surprising-benefits.htm.
- Independent Sector. n.d. About Us. Accessed November 2019. https://independentsector.org/about-us/.
- Learning to Give. n.d. Helping Students Find Their "Spark". Accessed November 2019. https://www.learningtogive.org/news/helping-students-find-their-spark.
- —. n.d. Map your heartbreak - change the world. https://www.learningtogive.org/resources/map-your-heartbreak-change-world.
- Payton, Robert L. & Moody, Michael P. 2008. Voluntary Action for the Public Good. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
- Points of Light Foundation. n.d. All for Good. Accessed November 2019. https://www.pointsoflight.org/all-for-good/.
- United Way. n.d. Get Involved. https://www.unitedway.org/get-involved/volunteer.
- Volunteer Match. n.d. Volunteer Match Media Kit. Accessed November 27, 2019. https://media.volunteermatch.org/docs/VolunteerMatch_MediaKit.pdf.
- wikiHow. 2017. How to Stand Out as a Successful Volunteer. Accessed November 27, 2019. https://www.wikihow.com/Stand-Out-As-a-Successful-Volunteer.
This briefing paper was authored by a student taking a philanthropic studies course in 2019 at The Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.