How to BYOVO: Build Your Own Volunteer Opportunity

So you have the drive, you’ve been called, you are ready to serve…but you just can’t find anything that “fits” well. You could settle for something that’s kind of close, of course. Better yet, you could build your own volunteer opportunity.

The space between volunteer and community organizer is the home of the volunprenuer… entrenteer… or whatever you wish to call it. It’s a work in progress. In the years since I hung up my professional volunteer coordinator hat and became just a volunteer, there have quite a few occasions when I strongly believed in a cause but just couldn’t find anyone around me that was working on it. In those times I became a volunteernuer… an envolunteer…anyway, in those cases I built my own volunteer opportunity. Some were really successful. Others backfired. Some never got off the ground. Just like normal entrepreneurship. But in all those cases I felt like I was following my convictions. I learned a lot along the way, and I want to pass on that experience to you.

I should also mention that the system I’m using is based on my experiences with startup culture and modern forms of entrepreneurialism like LEAN methodologies. While built for business, this methods have been fine-tuned to help us adapt to fast changing cultural realities.

Confirm that you’ve done your best to find volunteer opportunities “near me”

BYOVO is mainly for local opportunities. If remote volunteering is your jam, chances are you’ll find something since the possibilities are so much wider, so don’t forget that as a possibility. Thankfully, we’ve written a handy guide for all the best ways to find volunteer opportunities near you.

Define the problem you think you are trying to solve

This is where it’s helpful to do some research in the area you are looking into and then try to apply it to your local circumstance. Don’t recreate the wheel. Other people in other places will have experience dealing with the issue you care about. Look for circumstances that resemble yours, then reach out and ask questions. Even if you are an expert, it’s always helpful to compare notes.

When you feel you have an up to date understanding of the issue, try to write out the problem you will be addressing. In fact write out a few versions of it that feel right. Say you are working on housing availability in your area. An example problem statement might be: “people aren’t aware of the need for more low cost housing units here.”

Talk to some people you think are most affected by the problem

These are referred to as “Problem Interviews” in startup culture. Do not skip this step or you might end up developing a solution that doesn’t have a problem. You want to go right to the source and see which of your problem statements resonates with them the most. Then, ask them how they’d solve the problem! Also find out how they’ve heard of it being solved. You’ll want to do enough of these that you can start to see some trends and have some ideas of some potential solutions.

Brainstorm the solutions that fits you

This is a good time to journal or talk things over with friends. You are looking for solutions you believe will solve the problem that aligns well with your interests, qualifications, and resources. Of those three, interest is the most important. You can always find help for the other two. So using my earlier example where the problem is a lack of awareness about the affordable housing shortage, let’s imagine you care about the issue a great deal, and you have time (resource) to spend on it, but you are not sure you are good at public relations. You’ve hit two of the three requirements, and at this point you are exited about the prospect of working on this.

A note about interest: Entrepreneurs often talk about falling in love with their ideas and how that’s both good and bad. Those love chemicals are often fleeting, but you know it’s good when your interest in the idea has staying power over time.

Devise a MVVA (Minimum Viable Volunteer Action)

In startup culture, this is called a “Minimum Viable Product.” The idea is you want to test your solution without wasting a bunch of resources, or else you might waste a lot of time building something that doesn’t work. You want to learn as fast as possible. So if you wanted to do a community meal, for example, you might do it in a house for eight people instead of in a hall for fifty. You’ll learn almost as much from the experience, but with a fraction of the work.

Measure your results. Suppose the problem you were trying to solve with the meal was a lack of community. At the end of the meal, ask the people if they think this is a good way to build community and get their feedback for improvements.

Note about one-time actions: Some of the actions I’ve developed over the years have been designed to solve a narrow problem, one that I thought could be accomplished in one or two passes. I’d still recommend this system as you might not get it done the first pass, and you may uncover a larger problem in the process that you feel called to work on. However, each step may be more abbreviated.

Build – Measure – Learn

Take your learnings from your MVVA and incorporate them into the next test, then keep iterating. The volunteer action will grow and formalize over each iteration. This method is great for a new volunteer because it allows you to grow into your new volunteer role incrementally, as the action itself grows. It also give you time each cycle to grow your network and your resources. But be careful…if you grow too much, you might turn into a nonprofit director or a community organizer!

Helpspring, when finished, will be particularly good at helping volunteer entrepreneurs to quickly build and test volunteer actions for free.

Know Your Exit Strategy

It’s always good to imagine as you start how and when you’ll want to celebrate the end of your volunteer effort. This will make you more aware of when it’s time to wind it down or come up with a succession plan. The alternative is letting the action carry on long after it has reached peak effectiveness, keeping you from moving on to your next entrepreneurial effort.

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