March 28, 2021
7 min read
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:
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.
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.
People have different reasons for volunteering. Ask yourself why you’re looking for volunteering opportunities, whether they’re nearby or abroad:
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.
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.
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:
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.
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:
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.
Volunteerism comes in many forms. You could:
Decide which of these roles you would like to take on as a volunteer so you can search for an appropriate project.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
Just like a job search, it’s important to build context for yourself before you start volunteering. Research will:
Knowing this information will help paint a picture of what volunteering for the organization might look like.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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:
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!
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.
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:
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.
Communicating is a two-way street: you must be able to speak and listen effectively. Here are a few tips:
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:
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!
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:
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.
Training is important for anyone, whether they’re a compensated worker or a volunteer. As a newcomer, you should expect that the organization will:
If, after orientation or training, some of these questions are still unanswered, you should absolutely ask.
After you’ve been at the organization for a while, reflect on the volunteer opportunity you found.
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.