Whether it's the Obama administration's call to service or just people getting their priorities in check, volunteerism has recently increased by nearly 50 percent for a number of causes nationwide. At a time when nonprofits are short on cash, every penny and every hand makes a difference so if you have yet to get involved, now is a great time to start.
You don't have to be knee-deep in mud or roughing it overseas to call yourself a volunteer. Robert Rosenthal, director of communications at VolunteerMatch, suggests asking yourself the following four questions to determine which type of organization would best match your skill set:
What kind of work do you want to do?
What is your availability?
Is there a specific cause you care about?
Do you want to volunteer alone or with a group of friends and family?
As president of ChicagoVolunteer.net's Community Research Network, Kathleen Gillig believes it's not at all selfish to think about your own interests when choosing a cause to support. "Volunteerism is a two-way street," Kathleen says. "Since you're giving up personal time, the best thing to do is to choose something you would find fulfilling. Examining this is just as important as if you were looking for a job."
What Kind of Work Do You Want to Do?
Kathleen says you should decide whether you'd prefer to do direct service work or to have an internal role within the organization.
Either way, don't stop short of finding a match that benefits the agency and makes best use of your talents. Volunteering is about creating a relationship, Robert says, and in every relationship, success comes from being passionate and engaged.
What Is Your Availability?
Think critically about how much time you can actually offer. Short-term, skilled projects are a great starting point. Robert says that can mean one-day events or those carried out over a week or two. These can give you an intense look into what the organization does and how it's run. Afterward, there's time to evaluate the experience before you sign on to a larger project.
Kathleen says people too often underestimate how large a commitment it can be to join a volunteer program. Others resort to community service to fill a gap between jobs but fail to inform the agencies that they might not stick around. "People think they can pop in whenever they have some free time, but a volunteer is just like a staff position," Kathleen says. "The organizations need to depend on an ongoing time commitment."
Is There a Specific Cause You Care About?
Robert believes the biggest misconception about volunteering is that you just need to show up to succeed. "Showing up isn't the issue," he says. "It's being engaged once you get there."
So he likes to ask new volunteers what they think needs to change in their communities. "That's usually the cause they care about," Robert says.
If you're an animal-lover, consider a zoo or shelter. If you're a political junkie, find a group with similar political goals to your own. You may realize you have your heart set on working with children or that you want to help people with disabilities. What matters most, Robert says, is picking an organization you're excited about.
Do You Want to Volunteer Alone or with a Group of Friends and Family?
Think about getting your family involved in community service—it can make the experience even more powerful. You can teach your children about your values and make service a new family tradition that will continue for years to come.
"The takeaway for kids is the chance to see their parents in this environment of giving, in this environment of action," Robert says. Children, he says, can learn through volunteering that they have the power to make positive change.
These days, finding the perfect organization is just a click away. Websites like VolunteerMatch.org, ChicagoVolunteer.net and AllforGood.org are among the many networking resources that can narrow down the nonprofit world and guide your search for an organization that's right for you.
Once you've chosen one, reach out! Start by checking the nonprofit's website for contact information, Kathleen says. She suggests treating the organization like a job opportunity. Before your first meeting, learn as much about their work as you can. By getting comfortable with the organization's mission, size, location and requirements, you'll be as prepared as possible for all that's to come.
Keep Realistic Expectations
Remember that baby steps are essential to achieving the larger goal. "You aren't going to be able to solve a problem in your first meeting," Kathleen says. "Keep your expectations real and keep them honest."
So while you may not feel like you've changed the world in an afternoon, you never know when your act of volunteering will alter another person's life forever.