Note: Before you dig in, you may wish to first read our previous posts, 7 Steps to Take BEFORE You Start Looking for Volunteer Opportunities, and The Best Places to Go to Find Volunteer Opportunities “Near Me”. Together, these make up a comprehensive series of posts designed to empower you to find volunteer opportunities where you can make a real impact.
Together, these nine factors should provide a strong litmus test for any volunteer opportunity you are considering, or are currently engaged in. As usual, this post was written by a former volunteer manager and global social justice communicator, with help from trusted community organizers and volunteers like you.
1. Are your values aligned?
This may seem straight forward and obvious, but our values shift over time. Your decision will take some introspection and investigation on your part. It’s import to take stock of where you are today, reflecting on the values that persistently stick with you. Organizational values also shift–not as quickly, though sometimes actions reveal an existing value stronger than words.
Exercise 1. Complete your volunteer dating profile by following the exercises in our previous post.
Exercise 2. What are the last three major actions the group has taken? List the values those actions demonstrate. Determine if each of those values aligns with your passions.
Helpspring is building a system based solely around action-taking in groups. It will match your interests up with group interests. You’ll be able to see each group’s completed actions and know right away what they value.
2. Will you be utilized effectively?
Doing social good is often thankless, mundane work. Sometimes it feels good to be with other folx and get your hands dirty. More often, though, we want to make sure that our personal resources (our time, expertise, money and so on) are being used to their fullest potential.
Exercise 3. If you did step three from our Volunteer Dating Profile then you should already have an inventory of the resources you bring to an organization or opportunity. Compare those resources to what is being asked of you in the volunteer opportunity. If they don’t match up well, you’ll need to either decide if it’s still worth it or to see if you can tweak your role to better fit your skills.
3. Is there transparency, especially with financials?
Budgets are moral documents. A budget will tell you where a group’s heart is, often moreso than its mission statement. Similarly, you want to know if the group is public and responsive when it comes to dealing with criticism. Does the group publish all of their relationships, affiliations, and funding sources? Finally, are they willing to open up to you about all that your role will entail?
Exercise 4. Obtain the group’s or organization’s budget if they have one. That should allow you to see their funding sources and how much is spent on administration versus direct action. If you spot anything confusing or have concerns, ask and then see if your questions get answered.
4. Are there acceptable levels of organization?
Grassroots groups can be messy, but there should still be a discernable method to the madness. In contrast, established groups should be punctual, prepared, and know what’s going on. There should be good levels of communication happening. This is one of the things that will hopefully become apparent as you are being recruited for the role.
5. Is there mutual accountability?
Just because you are volunteering doesn’t mean there isn’t room for constructive, respectful criticism. It’s fair to expect that there will be change or reconciliation based on your critique. It’s also a two way street. You should be able help the group you are working with stay true to their mission, and they should help you stay true to yours. You can ask what kind of assessment they do for volunteers and for the organization each year.
6. Are diverse voices included and centered?
Striving for diversity and inclusion will aid almost any situation. This is particularly true when a group seeks to serve a historically marginalized community. If that community isn’t represented at the highest levels from the very beginning, then it raises red flags about that group’s capacity to serve their intended community, because they wouldn’t have gotten the input they needed along the way. Ideally, this will become apparent as you are observing and meeting others who are involved. If it’s not clear, ask if you can talk to a person that represents that community.
7. Does your capabilities match their expectations, and vice versa?
This is the flip side of evaluating whether your personal resources are being used well. Now, you seek to answer the question, “Are the limitations of volunteers being respected?” If you have limitations, the group you are working with should try to make reasonable accommodations (to borrow ADA language).
Exercise 5. Create a list of all the reasonable things you don’t think you could manage in a volunteer relationship. If you think any of them apply to this situation, then be sure to talk with someone before you commit.
8. Will you get what you need in return?
You can want things for yourself while also wanting things for the people you are serving. The two aren’t mutually exclusive. Usually you’ll want to build relationships, but sometimes you may want to build professional skills. There are lots of valid things you might want from the experience.
Exercise 6. If you did step 5 from your Volunteer Dating Profile then you’ll already have a list of what you want to get out of this volunteer experience. Try to match them up and see if your key items will be possible.
One of the key benefits we think Helpspring will provide is a way for volunteers to build relationships that will flourish through shared action with like-minded people.
9. Will you be safe?
We all have different tolerances for safety depending on the circumstances. I once put together a group that was going to do aid work in Haiti. A few months before we were to leave, there was increasing political instability. The work was important, but through a lot of conversations and discernment, we decided to cancel the trip. If the work you would be doing as a volunteer carries some risk, it’s good to know ahead of time how your safety will be ensured. Similar to the section above on transparency, the organization should be willing to disclose any problems that they recently had along with how they have improved the situation. Sometimes, you just get bad vibes. Don’t discount them, because you deserve to feel safe.