In some ways, I’m trying to slow my life down. Finishing my graduate degree, raising a toddler, going to my day job then night job (this blog), and making sure my husband can remember what I look like, it’s been a very busy time in my life.
Throughout these activities, I volunteered with a couple of organizations. Looking to next year, one of my “anti-resolutions” is to pare down on my obligations to other people. That being said, I know that volunteering is an incredible part of my life. It helped me meet new friends when we moved to a new town and we’ve been able to do a lot of great things for our area. So I want to focus on the causes really important to me with less meetings.
Some of my most treasured memories are from volunteer experiences. We were working outside of New Orleans, cleaning out houses flooded by Katrina, and we heard the faint sound of the ice cream truck in the distance. We thought it was a ‘mirage’ since the neighborhoods were mostly empty and few stores were open. It got closer and our mouths started to water. We saw it pass by three blocks away. One person from our group took off running and brought the ice cream truck right to our work site. It was the best ice cream I ever tasted. The driver came by every day that week, telling us neighborhood stories and making us want to work even harder.
You don’t have to travel across the country to volunteer. There are life-changing moments waiting for you in your own community. If you’ve been thinking about volunteering and don’t know where to start, here are a some thoughts to consider, no matter what season of life you are in:
Pros and Cons of Volunteering
- Benefits your physical AND mental health (Source)
- Meeting like-minded and like-hearted people
- Assist others in need
- Sets good example for your family
- See new places (especially if it’s “voluntourism”).
- Time commitment
- Challenging personalities
- Doing work (even after your day job)
How to start volunteering
1) Find something you care about.
What speaks to your heart? It can be a cause, location, or activity. If you’ve been affected by cancer, you could volunteer for an organization that raises money for cancer research, a center that helps affected families, or a spa that provides services for patients.
2) Make sure the work is something you’d like.
Don’t choose dog-walking if you’re deathly afraid of any four-legged creatures. That’s not to say that all events will be easy or that you won’t need to work hard some times. For example, fundraising events can involve some awkward calls for sponsors or hard-work to clean-up. Usually, in those circumstances, you can talk amongst the group to make sure members are doing things they like or can ask for some help on the activity. Make sure, in general, that you like the type of activity that the organization is looking for.
3) Estimate your time commitment.
Is this something you’d like to do randomly, as the need at the organization rises? Or is it something you’d like to regularly commit to like every second Thursday of the month? Can you offer 5 hours a month or 10 hours a week? There are a lot of organizations that host annual events like Rebuilding Together or Habitat for Humanity then some need you every week for a soup kitchen.
4) Research organizations.
More than likely, there will be multiple opportunities for your chosen cause. For example, if you are concerned about recycling, you could volunteer with a national organization to go door to door and have people pledge to recycle. You could campaign the local trash hauler to accept more types of recyclables. Or you could teach a local elementary class about what can be recycled. Don’t be afraid to talk to a couple of places before you commit.
If you are super passionate about a particular place like a local park, historical building, or swimming hole, there may not be as many organizations to work with but there will be a lot of activities you could do. You could host community pot-lucks, purchase new signs, organize clean-up days, get special state/federal designations, etc.
5) Have an exit strategy.
This is probably more important if you have already signed up to help with something. There’s nothing worse than someone quitting just as a major project/event is underway or if the organization is at a critical moment. Unless there are emergency circumstances, provide the group with enough notice. On a legal note (I’m not a lawyer and don’t play one on TV), some volunteers agencies may have a waiver, especially if it involves construction efforts like Habitat for Humanity or St. Bernard Project. If you’re working with sensitive material, you may need to sign a confidentiality agreement. But you shouldn’t be asked to sign a contract or pay something to volunteer. You may have to commit to certain amounts if your role is specifically fundraising (e.g. endurance races that you train for and fundraise throughout the training period). One way to check about the organization is by looking at their rating on Charity Navigator, talking to your town hall, checking with friends who already volunteer
How to Be a Good Volunteer
1) Show up and on-time.
It’s really hard to organize volunteers. If you say you’ll be there, please show or at least give them enough time to find someone.
2) Ask for directions.
If you’ve never done the activity, feel free to ask for directions. It’s especially important if you or anyone else could get hurt. Get the right directions to do the work and do it safely.
3) Get along with work-mates.
Undoubtedly, there will be someone weird during the course of your volunteering. Unless they make you uncomfortable, try to politely nod at the long-winded stories about their Aunt Ivy’s cat that has different eye colors. Over time, you may find that this person was a bridge partner with Jackie Kennedy.
4) Do what you said you would do.
If you volunteer to call three caterers for prices, do it. Or make cookies for the bake sale (don’t be afraid to use es and Bake cook).
5) Communicate early if you can’t meet obligations.
Life happens. To all of us. If you can’t make your hours or obligations, let the group know as soon as you can.
Interesting Facts about Volunteering
(Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Volunteering in the United States, 2015”)
- “In 2015, parents with children under age 18 were again more likely to volunteer than persons without children, 31.3 percent versus 22.6 percent.”
- “Volunteers spent a median of 52 hours on volunteer activities during the period from September 2014 to September 2015. Time spent on volunteer activities was similar for men (52 hours) and women (50 hours). Among those who volunteered, median annual hours spent on volunteer activities ranged from a high of 94 hours for those age 65 and over to a low of 36 hours for those under 35 years old.”
- “Collecting, preparing, distributing, or serving food was the activity volunteers performed most often for their main organization in 2015–11.3 percent of volunteers reported this as their main activity. Other activities performed frequently were tutoring or teaching (9.2 percent), fundraising (9.0 percent), and engaging in general labor (8.8 percent). However, main activities differed among men and women. Men who volunteered were most likely to engage in general labor (12.3 percent); coach, referee, or supervise sports teams (9.3 percent); or collect, prepare, distribute, or serve food (9.2 percent). Female volunteers were most likely to collect, prepare, distribute, or serve food (12.9 percent); tutor or teach (10.6 percent); or fundraise (9.9 percent).”
I hope that this post helps you find a volunteer opportunity that enriches your life in all the ways possible. It is a marvelous thing to do and makes the world a better place, one bake sale, one home renovation, one potluck at a time. Have you volunteered? What worked or didn’t work for you?