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If you’ve decided it’s time to start volunteering — or add a new project to your existing community service commitments — you’ve got plenty of company. The Corporation for National and Community Service, an independent foundation of the federal government, reported in its 2017 survey that volunteerism in the United States is on the rise. In the year the report was published, more than 77 million Americans donated some of their time to a cause.
And as those millions of people can attest, satisfying the desire to do good has less altruistic perks as well: Research has found that volunteering can teach you empathy, pull you out of a depressive funk, give you a sense of purpose, and even lower your blood pressure.
But deciding to volunteer is different than actually joining the ranks of those who do. For one thing, it’s not always easy to fit volunteer hours into the confines of a busy schedule, particularly if you work a nine-to-five job. And it’s not unusual to hear of nonprofits in big cities with waiting lists of helpers. Corporate days of service, holidays, and other organized volunteer efforts can also create headaches, with volunteers showing up unprepared or ill-equipped for the work and organizations short on people to manage them.
You want to do good, and more than that, you want the time you put in to make a real difference beyond your own satisfaction. But while there’s a wealth of resources and online tools that can help you see the impact of your donated dollars, it’s harder to track the impact of your time. How do you know whether that Saturday you spent slogging through literacy tutor training will add up to anything more than a box to check in the quest for self-improvement?
Ask yourself the right questions
For starters, think beyond the logistics of your own life. The past decade or so has seen the growth of a movement known as effective altruism — EA for short — which attempts to quantify the greatest possible good a person can do. Proponents of EA urge a move away from actions that merely feel helpful and heartwarming and toward those that measurably improve the most lives for the longest period of time. They’re also often (though not always) wary of volunteering in general: It’s not free for an organization to host volunteers, and anyway, what’s an hour ladling soup if your time is worth $60 an hour that you could then donate to an effective charity?
“A park can only be cleaned up so many times.”
To figure out whether your volunteer time is as altruistic as it could be, it helps to take a critical eye to your own motives. As Sean Hennessy, who works with the Humane Society’s Forward Food program and has been involved in several local EA chapters, puts it, “You could ask yourself: ‘Am I doing this because it’s fun and it’s a great way to meet people, or am I doing this because it’s how I think I’ll make a difference?’”
“You want to know what you want to gain from the experience,” agrees Jeff Brady, director of volunteer engagement at United Way. Brady has seen firsthand what happens when a company’s volunteers’ wants and a nonprofit’s needs don’t match: “A park can only be cleaned up so many times,” he says. It’s important to know why you want to volunteer in the first place, he adds, which can help you approach it with a more flexible mindset rather than arbitrarily becoming attached to one site or activity.
Once you’ve figured out your own goals, ask organizations what they need. Hennessy suggests being frank about your desire for effectiveness, with a line like, “I’d love to help out, and I’d love to maximize how much impact I’m going to make.”
So the homeless shelter in your neighborhood told you that what it really needs is someone to serve lunch at the 11 a.m. shift every Tuesday, and that won’t work for you. Instead of getting discouraged, consider a metaphor that Brady likes to use: Finding a volunteer opportunity is like dating, and you might need to try out a few before you find a good match.
To take the metaphor a step further, you can also use “online dating” to help in your search. There are several websites, like VolunteerMatch and SmartVolunteer, that can help you find organizations that may need your specific skill set and filter for opportunities that line up with your desired location and schedule.
Think of it like a job
Often, the most “high-skill” opportunities, the ones that can be done well only by a small number of people, are considered more valuable by effective altruists. “The volunteer jobs that do the least good are ones that are easily replaceable,” argues a blog post on the website of 80,000 Hours, an organization affiliated with the EA movement. If you’re planning to drop into another country to build houses, for example, “you should think again — odds are you’re taking someone else’s job over there, and then doing it badly.”
Basil Saddiq, senior marketing manager at VolunteerMatch, says the image of volunteerism is typically one of soup kitchens and food pantries, but skills-based needs — accounting, editing, fundraising — can often be more pressing for many nonprofits. Each time an organization posts an opportunity on VolunteerMatch, the portal makes sure relevant parties on LinkedIn see it, an attempt to get would-be volunteers to leverage their professional expertise.
Be willing to pitch in ASAP
Saddiq advises volunteers to think about “critical real-time needs” as the best way to make a significant impact. Perhaps a nonprofit has a bug with its website and can’t afford full-time expertise, or a social worker needs legal advice for a client in a pinch — pitching in on issues like these can be a more valuable use of your labor than allocating it to more evergreen projects.
Once you find the right volunteer gig, sticking with it is one of the best ways to ensure your work matters.
Think about what’s going on in your community—and in the news. If you live in a region that’s still struggling to recover from extreme weather events or has a disproportionate number of residents struggling with job, food, and shelter insecurity, local groups will often be up-front about telling helpers what they really need. In Washington, DC, where food pantries saw demand spike during the government shutdown, for example, food bank websites have been forthcoming about what kind of help was most useful: hosting a “digital food drive” and donating cash instead of hauling soup cans to them in person.
Once you find the right volunteer gig, sticking with it is one of the best ways to ensure your work matters. The best volunteer experiences are ongoing, rather than episodic, Brady says. If you can drop in to help only once, fine, but more often is better. Consistency is key.
“Long-term relationships are what we’re after,” Brady says, “because those are the most transformative for the individual and the community.”