Tutorials

March 28, 2021

7 min read

How to start volunteering

Written by Liz Chibucos

Content writer at Humancreed.com

To start volunteering, you need a plan. Why is that? Many people encounter barriers when they try to start volunteering. “What can I offer? How do I find the right opportunity among hundreds? How do I get the most value from it?”

Here at Humancreed, we constantly connect hundreds of volunteers with different organizations and opportunities.

In this guide, we’ll share our expertise, showing you how to confidently overcome barriers and start volunteering in purposeful ways.

Here are the steps you can take to start volunteering in your community:

  1. Decide which volunteer opportunities you want
  2. Research possible volunteer opportunities
  3. Narrow down your options and make a choice
  4. Apply to a volunteer opportunity
  5. Interview with the organization
  6. Review and accept an offer to start volunteering
  7. Complete any necessary training
  8. Reevaluate as you gain experience

Volunteering is a meaningful activity that brings joy and fulfillment. And while it’s appealing to many of us, all too often people will stop short when it’s actually time to get their hands dirty. Following the right plan makes the process easy and fun.


Image by Maria Oswalt
People at Black Lives Matter protest (by Maria Oswalt)

Which volunteer opportunities do I want?

Before you start volunteering, take some time to self-reflect. Knowing what your abilities are and what drives you is an important first step toward successful volunteerism. You’ll increase your chance of making beneficial contributions and you’ll boost your own motivation. Below are some good thoughts to chew on before you start volunteering.

Images by San Francisco City Impact
Volunteers at San Francisco City Impact

What drives me to volunteer?

People have different reasons for volunteering. Ask yourself why you’re looking for volunteering opportunities, whether they’re nearby or abroad:

  • Altruistic and value-driven motivations to volunteer: It’s important for you to help others, to learn about or work for a cause, to make someone feel better or to gain new perspectives.
  • Educational and career-related motivations to volunteer: You want to gain work experience to bolster a career resume or college application, expand your career network or get your foot in the door for paid employment.
  • Peer influence and self-appeasing motivations to volunteer: Close friends or family have influenced you to volunteer; it relieves some of the guilt over being more fortunate than others; you were encouraged to volunteer by a career advisor; you want to make new friends; it’s a good escape from your troubles.
Images by San Francisco SPCA
Animal shelter volunteers at San Francisco SPCA

How can I apply my skills and interests?

There is an incredible range of volunteer opportunities out there. Nonprofits and charitable organizations are connected with virtually any industry you can think of. Finding the ones that exist in your own spheres of influence (career, expertise, field of study) can open the door to some wonderful options. Think about your personal talents and ways you could put them to good use.

  • What skills and special knowledge do you have? Can you build things? Are you a teacher, a writer, an artist, a manager, a computer coder, a good driver?
  • What are you interested in? Do you love the outdoors, cooking, reading? Is your goal to learn something new or implement what you already know?
Volunteering is most gratifying when you can use your own knowledge and skill to further a cause you care about.

It affects real change, reinforces your values and empowers you to have a role in your community. If you can find a volunteer opportunity that would benefit from your specific talents, you’ll put yourself on the path to a satisfying experience.

Image by San Francisco Human Services
Help people with disability at San Francisco Human Services

Which causes speak to me?

It can feel like there are countless causes to fight and infinite improvements to be made. But carrying the weight of the whole world on our shoulders will only lead to compassion fatigue. Each one of us can do our best work when we focus on something specific.

Think about some of these options:

  • Education
  • Physical health, motor development and fitness
  • Mental health
  • Disability advocacy
  • Cultural development
  • Animal advocacy
  • Emergency relief
  • Homelessness
  • Human rights
  • Women’s advocacy
  • Neighborhood and community improvement
  • Children’s advocacy
  • Environmental advocacy
  • Veterans’ advocacy
  • Hunger

Narrow down your list to the two or three issues that matter to you most, and target those while searching for a volunteer opportunity. You’ll find that it makes your plans come into better focus. Plus, you can always work for a different cause later on down the line.

Images by Rafael House of San Francisco
Volunteers at Rafael House of San Francisco

Do volunteer opportunities have any possible restrictions?

Volunteering is for everyone, but not every opportunity is a good fit. Check in with yourself about potential situations like being asked to lift heavy items, standing for several hours at a time, getting your clothes covered in paint whatever the circumstances may turn out to be.

Here are some useful questions to ask before committing to a volunteering opportunity:

  • Are there any age restrictions?
  • Can I take friends with me?
  • Can I take kids with me?
  • Where does the event take place?
  • Is there free parking?
  • What should I wear?
  • What should I bring with me, if anything (masks, gloves, paper, etc.)?
  • When I arrive at the location, will someone meet me? Should I call someone?
  • Will there be access to a restroom (especially if the event is outside)?
  • Is lunch provided (if the volunteer opportunity takes more than 3 hours)?
  • Is a car required, or can I still volunteer without one (especially important for delivery opportunities)?
  • Is it possible to get verification of my volunteer hours?
  • Should I follow the CDC recommendations?

Tip: If you plan on bringing children along, make sure the project you find is an appropriate place for your kiddos. There are plenty of fitting volunteer opportunities for children, young adults and families.

Images by Glide
Volunteers at Glide grocery bag giveaway 2019

What do I want to offer?

Volunteerism comes in many forms. You could:

  • Donate money (contribute to a nonprofit or a cause that matters to you).
  • Donate goods (give food to a food bank; give used clothing or furniture to a thrift store; even donate stocks, a vehicle or a legacy).
  • Donate professional services (e.g. offer ten hours of pro bono tax work).
  • Fundraise for a cause that matters to you (e.g. start a GoFundMe fund drive)
  • Work on specific tasks for the organization (e.g. repair a state-park trail, help with office work, provide front desk services).
  • Offer some other specific work you’ve noticed the organization needs.

Decide which of these roles you would like to take on as a volunteer so you can search for an appropriate project.

Image by Edgewood center
Volunteers at running marathon (by Edgewood Center)

How much time can I commit to volunteering? 

You don’t have to give up all of your free time to volunteer. You do, however, have to set aside time to volunteer; otherwise, it may not ever happen.

Volunteer opportunities can be:

  • One-time engagements
  • Recurring or ongoing as daily, weekly, or monthly events
  • Morning, afternoon, or night activities

We recommend starting with the one-time engagements for your first volunteering experience. It will help you to understand how it works and what you really need.

Consider how much time you’re able to consistently commit and if you’re interested in short- or long-term endeavors.

Beware overpromising

It’s easy to overpromise, especially at first when you’re hyper-motivated. You need to maintain other parts in your life that make you happy and healthy, like hobbies and down time. Start slow and scale up your efforts as you get comfortable with your schedule.

Plan for sustainable commitments

Have a good sense of your availability before you start volunteering so you can refine your search for the right organization. Sit down with your calendar and consider your daily, weekly, and monthly schedule. Ask yourself, “Would I be able to commit to this if it started tomorrow? Or next week?”

If the opportunity proves to be just too good to pass up even if it might take a large chunk of your time, ask yourself, “What am I willing to scrap from my schedule in order to do this?”

This is how to start volunteering in a sustainable way that won’t add stress to your life or burn you out.

Images by Glide
Homeless people getting help from volunteers at Glide Grocery bag giveaway 2019

Should I stick to volunteer opportunities near me?

Volunteering can happen locally, regionally, nationally, and internationally.

The best and most effective place for you to start volunteering is in your own neighborhood.

Are there ongoing issues in your community that really get you fired up? Smaller projects can yield immediate, visible results because they’re more focused on one specific cause.

If you do want to find a local, in-person opportunity, be sure to consider factors such as commuting time and health-and-safety measures.

Tip: There are organizations (such as Americorps and Peacecorps) that coordinate massive programs and send volunteers all over the country and world. If you’re a seasoned volunteer looking for an extended adventure, these large-scale programs accomplish great things and provide exciting options!

Image by JASA
Art exhibition at JASA (go-to agency for seniors)

Are there online volunteer opportunities?

Volunteering in-person is not the best option for everyone. Perhaps you are experiencing a physical disability, a demanding parental or caregiver role, an unpredictable work schedule or another extenuating life circumstance. Many of us are justifiably uncomfortable with face-to-face interactions during the COVID-19 pandemic. Virtual volunteer opportunities could be the answer you’re looking for.

There are many options for doing good deeds without attending on-site events. Tasks such as data entry, transcribing, translating, scheduling and researching can all be accomplished online. Consider donating your time through one of these channels if you’d like to stick to virtual volunteer opportunities.

Images by NYC Health + Hospitals
Volunteers helping people during COVID-19 outbreak at NYC Health + Hospitals

How do I grow my volunteer experience?

Start with a larger, well-established organization

If you want to find a volunteer opportunity but it’s your first time getting involved, get your feet wet by working with an organization that already has a strong foothold in your community. San Francisco-Marin Food Bank or Second Harvest of Silicon Valley are great examples of volunteer organizations with deep roots in local and regional communities. YMCA and Meals on Wheels, similarly, are national organizations with established local chapters all around the country. Volunteering for an organization at this level will give you a good sense of how volunteering works and what good volunteer coordination looks like.

Continue with smaller, less-established projects

Once you become familiar with the basics of volunteering, you can broaden your experiences and offer your help to smaller, less-established projects. These groups may be less organized and could use help with recruitment, outreach or supplies. In these situations, you may find more opportunities to grow as a volunteer, perhaps moving into volunteer coordination and program management roles.


Images by San Francisco City Impact
Kids at San Francisco City Impact

Research possible volunteer opportunities

When you find an opportunity that interests you, it can really help to know more details about the different aspects of the job description. What is your potential role and its responsibilities? Who is the organization behind the opportunity? What is the community or cause that the opportunity serves? What does the organization have to say about how to start volunteering for them?

How to research

Use Yelp, Google My Business, social media pages and official websites to look up additional information on the organization. Pay special attention to photos, comments and reviews of other volunteers.

Learn more about the volunteering causes and what the most effective solutions are for combating them. You can do this by referring to credible sources like international institutions and professional associations. These groups will have up-to-date research data and experts in the field to back up the information they provide.

Why researching is important

Just like a job search, it’s important to build context for yourself before you start volunteering. Research will:

  • confirm the opportunity’s and organization’s validity
  • clarify roles and responsibilities so you can make sure you’re a good fit
  • give you a sense of a required time commitment
  • prepare you for a possible interview
  • inform you of the organization’s mission and goals
  • teach you about the root causes of the issue being addressed
  • help you prepare for different situations you may encounter

Knowing this information will help paint a picture of what volunteering for the organization might look like.


Image by NYU Langone Health
Volunteers at NYU Langone Health

Narrow down options and make a choice

Whittle your options down to two or three opportunities and rank them. If it’s your first time volunteering, start with well-established organizations. These tend to be more structured and can show you how to start volunteering through easier and better-coordinated methods.

Select opportunities that best fit your skills, interests, availability, personal values and reasons for volunteering.

If you find an organization you’d love to volunteer for but isn’t publicly listing opportunities, you can write a letter of interest, asking for more information on how to start volunteering for them.


Images by Hooves & Paws animal shelter
Volunteer at Hooves & Paws animal shelter

Applying to volunteer opportunities

The next step is to apply to your chosen opportunities. If they’re all competitive and you’re not sure you’ll be offered the job, apply to all of them at once. If they’re less competitive, start with your top choice and work your way through the list.

Treat it like a job

Involved, long-term volunteer opportunities are frequently competitive and will have a hiring process similar to a paying job. This is where the previous research you did will really come in handy!

Job posting

The volunteer job posting should specify what is required for the application. Read it carefully and double check that you include everything the organization needs when you apply.

Cover letter

Always include a cover letter, even if the organization doesn’t request one. A cover letter will help you stand out from the crowd. It will communicate to the hiring manager or coordinator that you’re taking the opportunity seriously. And you will have control over how you introduce yourself to the organization.

A good cover letter should discuss why you want the opportunity and why you’re a good fit. Mention relevant past experiences you’ve had and communicate a willingness to stay with the organization long term.

Resume

Volunteer organizations will often want to see your resume when you apply. You should include past work experience, education and other relevant experiences here. Consider including:

  • Directly related experiences are most important to feature (e.g. you’re applying to cook for a soup kitchen and you’ve worked as a line cook for five years)
  • Indirectly relevant experiences or related skills are also important to include (e.g. you’re applying to deliver meals to seniors and you once had a job as a hotel-shuttle driver)
  • Relevant skills, passions and interesting life experiences that will help paint a picture of who you are

More tips on tailoring your resume for volunteer opportunities can be found here.

Streamlined Registration

One-time, short-term or large-group projects and events may have streamlined ways to register as a volunteer, instead of a full-on application and interview process. These are often found on volunteer websites or have online forms. Just register to attend as a volunteer and you’re in!


Image by New York Public Library
Volunteers at "Libraries are for everyone" march

Interview with the organization

If you’ve been invited to interview with one of your chosen organizations, you’re one step closer to volunteering! Now you have a chance to meet and talk with the people you might be working with.

Remember to treat it like a job. Be professional by preparing for the interview, dressing appropriately, communicating clearly and demonstrating that you’ve done your research.

Preparing for the interview

An interview isn’t just a chance for the organization to get to know you. You should also take advantage of the time to learn more about them and the opportunity you’re applying for.

Once again, this goes back to our research step. Prepare a list of relevant questions — things you’d like to know but can’t find as you investigate the organization and the opportunity. Here are a few examples:

  • Can you give some more detail about the daily responsibilities of this role?
  • What is the most pressing task I should help with right when I start volunteering?
  • Is there orientation and training for your volunteers?
  • Have you noticed ongoing challenges other people in this role have had to overcome?
  • Is there opportunity for growth within your organization?
  • What do you like the most about working for this organization?
  • What upcoming projects are you looking forward to?
  • How would you describe the culture of the organization?
  • How do volunteers get feedback about the job they’re doing?

The interviewer may answer some of these questions over the course of your interview. But it’s a good idea to have them in mind ahead of time.

Tip: Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Usually, some time is reserved at the end of the interview for candidates to ask for additional information and clarifications.

Communicate clearly

Communicating is a two-way street: you must be able to speak and listen effectively. Here are a few tips:

  • Pay attention to the interviewer’s conversational tone and match it with your own communication style. Keep your answers topical and concise.
  • If necessary, ask the interviewer to clarify a question.
  • Pauses are OK. You’ll avoid interrupting the interviewer. You can take a moment to think so you can speak with intention.

More tips on communicating effectively during interviews can be found here.

Demonstrate that you’ve done your research

Sprinkling in little hints that demonstrate your preparation for the interview is one of the most effective things you can do. It shows the organization that you care about the opportunity and demonstrates initiative. Whip these little gems out at appropriate times in the interview to score major points:

  • Address the interviewers by their names
  • Reference the organization’s mission statement and goals
  • Discuss current events related to the organization
  • Discuss current events related to the issues they’re committed to solving

Knowing more about the organization in advance will allow you to respond to interview questions in a more compelling manner. You’ll be able to tailor your answers and target specific topics related to the organization, all of which shows you really know what you’re talking about!


Images by San Francisco SPCA
Volunteers at San Francisco SPCA

Review and accept an offer to start volunteering

Congratulations! You’ve been offered a position with your chosen organization! You might receive an email, a phone call and perhaps even an acceptance letter. You should expect to receive some additional details when you’re offered a volunteer position:

  • What position the organization is offering you
  • Responsibilities of the position
  • Your expected volunteer schedule
  • Any additional requirements to make your role official
  • Next steps

Next steps may include information on training, orientation and other pertinent details on how to start volunteering for the organization.

Before you accept the offer, recall the interview. Did you get a good impression of the organization and the interviewer? If so, great! Also, make sure that the role you’re being offered matches what you were expecting to see. Double-check that it still fits with your schedule availability.


Images by City Team San Francisco
Volunteers serving food at City Team San Francisco

Complete any necessary training

Training is important for anyone, whether they’re a compensated worker or a volunteer. As a newcomer, you should expect that the organization will:

  • teach you more about the history and origins of the organization
  • give you details on specific projects and programs
  • show you how the organization is structured
  • discuss the community the organization serves
  • introduce you to other volunteers and staff, including the person you’ll be reporting to
  • show you the process for how to start volunteering every time you come to work (do you clock in, check in, go to different locations?)
  • train you to perform the specific roles you’re assigned

If, after orientation or training, some of these questions are still unanswered, you should absolutely ask.


Sourced from Danny Glover twitter
Danny Glover volunteers at ACCFB

Reevaluate as you gain experience

After you’ve been at the organization for a while, reflect on the volunteer opportunity you found.

  • Is it still enjoyable?
  • Are you serving the community like you had hoped? 
  • Do you get along with co-volunteers and staff? 
  • Are organizational expectations clear?

If there are certain aspects of the volunteering you don’t enjoy, as can often happen, does the good still outweigh the bad? If so, you’re probably in a good place! If not, consider restarting this process, or go back to narrowing down your options and figure out how to start volunteering at a new organization.

It’s never a bad idea to evaluate your life and where you’re at. But the most important thing is to get out there and experience it! So take charge, find something that makes you happy and get out there and do it. You’ll grow as a person and be glad you did.


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