How to Choose the Right Volunteer Commitment

by Sonja Pipek ('09)

Decide what kind of commitment you want to give. Will it be long-term full-time, short-term full-time, a few weeks, long- or short-term part-time? There are many different ways to go about volunteering. By choosing how long, you can narrow down the search field and find something that will fit your life and time commitment. Each volunteer opportunity has different things to offer and a small time commitment over time can be just as rewarding as completely giving of your life for a period of time. If you are unsure about your availability, or want to see how the work suits you before making an extensive commitment, see whether the organization will start you out on a limited number of hours until you get the feel of things. Better to start out slowly than to commit yourself to a schedule you can't or don't want to fulfill.

Look for a group that works with issues you feel strongly about. You might already be giving money or other forms of support to one of these organizations, and that might be a good place to begin your volunteer experience. If you can't find such an organization, here's a challenging and intriguing thought: Why not start one yourself? You can rally your neighbors to clean up that vacant lot on the corner, paint an elderly neighbor's house, take turns keeping an eye on the ailing person down the street, or form a group to advocate for more bike lanes in your neighborhood. There are unlimited possible creative avenues for volunteering, just as the need for volunteers in unlimited.

If you enjoy outdoor work, have a way with teaching, or just enjoy interacting with people, you may want to look for volunteer work that would incorporate these aspects of your personality. Many positions require a volunteer who has previous familiarity with certain equipment such as computers, or who possesses certain skills such as ability in athletics or communications. For one of these positions you might decide to do something comparable to what you do on the job during your workday, or something that you already enjoy as a hobby.

Perhaps you would like to learn a new skill or gain exposure to a new situation. Consider seeking a volunteer opportunity where you'll learn something new. For example, volunteering to work on the newsletter for the local animal shelter will improve your writing and editing abilities - skills that may help you in your career. Or, volunteering can simply offer a change from your daily routine. For example, if your full-time job is in an office, you may decide to take on a more active volunteer assignment, such as leading tours at an art museum or building a playground. Many nonprofits seek out people who are willing to learn.

Look for volunteer opportunities that will also help you achieve your other goals for your life. For examples if you are looking to add to your resume and build your career skills, try volunteering for an organization that you will be working in your field of future job interest whether that is community organizing, development, advocating, legal work, etc. Looking to lose a few extra pounds? Pick an active volunteer opportunity such as cleaning a park or working with kids. Or, if you've been meaning to take a cooking class, try volunteering at a food bank that teaches cooking skills.

Can you believe it? Yes, there is such a thing! If you have computer access and the necessary skills, some organizations now offer the opportunity to do volunteer work over the computer. This might take the form of typing a college term paper for a person with a disability, or simply keeping in contact with a shut-in who has e-mail. This sort of volunteering might be well suited to you if you have limited time, no transportation, or a physical disability that precludes you from getting about freely. Virtual volunteering can also be a way for you to give time if you simply enjoy computers and want to employ your computer skills in your volunteer work.

Many community groups are looking for volunteers, and some may not have occurred to you. Most of us know that hospitals, libraries, and churches use volunteers for a great deal of their work, but here are some volunteer opportunities that may not have crossed your mind

  • Day care centers
  • Neighborhood Watch
  • Public Schools and Colleges
  • Halfway houses
  • Community Theaters
  • Drug Rehabilitation Centers
  • Fraternal Organizations and Civic Clubs
  • Retirement Centers and Homes for the Elderly
  • Meals on Wheels Church or Community-Sponsored Soup Kitchens or Food Pantries
  • Museums, Art Galleries, and Monuments
  • Community Choirs, Bands and Orchestras
  • Prisons
  • Neighborhood Parks
  • Youth Organizations, Sports Teams, and after-school programs
  • Shelters for Battered Women and Children
  • Historical Restorations, Battlefields and National Parks

While most nonprofits are eager to find volunteer help, they have to be careful when accepting the services you offer. If you contact an organization with an offer to volunteer your time, you may be asked to come in for an interview, fill out a volunteer application, or describe your qualifications and your background just as you would at an interview for a paying job. It is in the organization's interest and more beneficial to the people it serves to make certain you have the skills needed, that you are truly committed to doing the work, and that your interests match those of the nonprofit. Furthermore, in volunteer work involving children or other at-risk populations, there are legal ramifications for the organization to consider.