7 Steps to Take BEFORE You Start Looking for Volunteer Opportunities

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In a lot of ways volunteerism is like dating. You may be asking yourself, “What kind of volunteer opportunities do I like?” or “Where do I meet nice volunteer opportunities?” Maybe you’re wondering, “What kind of volunteer relationship am I ready for?” New relationships can be scary and exciting all at the same time, and volunteerism is no exception. 

As a former volunteer coordinator and fellow volunteer, I’ve seen volunteer matches that transform lives as well as ones that, frankly, end in disaster. In addition to bringing my own wisdom on the subject, I’ve been talking to seasoned volunteers, volunteer managers, and community organizers in order to help you discern and find your ideal volunteer match. 

Doing these steps before you volunteer will make it easier to know you’ve found the right opportunity when you see it. They’ll also help you politely turn down possibilities that are not good fits for you. In other words, taking these steps will set you up for volunteer success!

Step One: Identify your persistent passions

It is always good to take stock in what issues (local environmental concerns, local education, care of shelter pets, etc.) are resonating with you today vs. what issues persistently resonate with you over time, and why this matters. Continuing with the dating theme, it’s easy to romanticize whatever issues are making the headlines. A new issue may resonate with all your being and may become a pillar of your identity…or it may fade in a couple of months. It’s still good to engage these feelings, but perhaps not with a long-term volunteer commitment.

Exercise: Make a list of the 5 issues that have been top of mind for you lately, and then list out the top 5 that have stuck with you through much of your life. Add a little note about “why” each one resonates. Here’s an example.

Current Things I Care AboutWhy This Matters to Me Now
Health care in UkraineWar; my college roommate is a nurse at a hospital there
Playground equipment replacementI’ve noticed how bad it is at some of the parks near me.
Things I Have Long Cared AboutWhy They Really Resonate with Me
Bird populationsI really love birds and know many species are threatened.
Pine Lake CampI spent a lot of time there as a kid & want others to experience it too

Step Two: Know the needs

Once you know where your passions lie, it’s good to figure out the actual needs in your community to see if you can align the two. A good way to think about this is to zoom out to the needs of the world, then zoom in all the way to the needs of the people around you. Thanks to the post-COVID proliferation of remote volunteering, you’ll have more opportunities to work on global or national issues. For the most part, though, volunteerism is often most impactful and meaningful when it is rooted in how you experience your local community. There’s long been a popular saying among activists: “Think global. Act local.”

To get a good picture of your neighborhood, start with sites like City-Data.com and Census.gov. Zoom in further by talking to your local city council representative or United Way chapter. Zoom further still by asking your friends, family, and coworkers who are invested in the local community how they perceive the needs around them.

Exercise: List the top 5 needs of your community. How do these needs overlap with your passions?

Step Three: Take inventory of your personal resources

There is a popular method of community organizing called Asset Based Community Development, or ABCD for short. It relies on identifying the assets in the community and bringing them into relationship with the needs of a community. In ABCD, it’s important to know what each person “brings to the table.” If someone asked you that, would you know how to answer them?

Here are some types of assets you should identify for yourself.

  • Time/Schedule: Know when you are free and how much time you truly have to give. 
  • Physical Resources: Do you have a spare room people can crash in? Do you have access to reliable transportation? Do you have a lawn mower people can borrow?
  • Financial Resources: Do you have a budget to help you pay for gas or the right kind of clothes or gear you might need? Could you cover your lost wages from missed work, if necessary?
  • Expertise: What are you good at that people might need help with? Cooking, math, web design…?
  • Internal Resources: What psychological or spiritual tools do you have that you can bring to difficult situations, such as empathy, persistence, or courage?

If you come out of this step and realize you don’t have a lot of resources, perhaps take a step back and figure out how you can develop them before you make a volunteer commitment. At the very least, be honest about your limitations in your volunteer relationship. Sometimes, it’s also helpful to ask a friend who knows you best to help you generate your list.

Exercise: List out all your personal resources, using whatever categories you wish.

Step Four: Name your non-negotiables

I know a person that left a long-term volunteer commitment because the organization that the local chapter belongs to discriminates against LGBTQ people. For them, that became a non-negotiable. In addition to personal beliefs, Issues of safety or privacy can also be non-negotiables. The items that matter most become good qualifiers in searching for a healthy volunteer relationship.

Exercise: Name as many non-negotiables you can think of that would disqualify a volunteer opportunity.

Step Five: Know your reasons for volunteering

Be honest about WHY you want to volunteer. Everyone should have meeting a community/societal need as a core reason, but there are other objectives you might want to accomplish. Making friends is a great objective, but if it ranks high for you you’ll want to focus on socially-oriented volunteering opportunities. It’s OK to be selfish with your ancillary needs, provided they don’t have the potential to introduce harm into the volunteer relationship. For example, don’t volunteer with Big Brothers Big Sisters of America to pad your resume if you aren’t willing to also invest in a caring, long-term relationship with your Little.

Exercise: In addition to doing good, name your other reasons for volunteering. 

Step Six: Build your volunteer dating profile

If you did all the exercises above, congratulations! You have built your volunteer dating profile (or resume, if that analogy doesn’t work for you). In this case, though, you probably won’t share all this information; rather, it will help you focus on the right opportunities and have better questions to ask when you find them.

Go back through everything you’ve written. Look for anything that now leaps out at you; see if there are natural ties between pieces of information. Those just might be the keys to finding your ideal volunteer fit.

Step Seven: Identify where you will search

We know it is not always easy to find volunteer opportunities “near me” that fit you. Thankfully, we’ve already written the guide to this!

How can Helpspring help?

We’re building the worlds first ever “social action network,” where it will be easy to find and track volunteer opportunities near you that you can engage in with your friends. Join our mailing list to receive more volunteering tips and keep up to date on Helpspring’s progress. No spam, we promise.

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