Intentional Volunteering

10 steps to a volunteer experience that could change your life

My mother was my role model in being of service to others. She rolled up her sleeves at church dinners, chaperoned my school field trips, went door-to-door for charities and made sandwiches every week for people who were homeless. Today, she’s 87 years old and still volunteers weekly.

My most recent volunteer roles have been working with organizations serving homeless youth. It’s an understatement to say that these experiences have left an indelible mark on my life. Meeting these kids and having an opportunity to be of service to them has been humbling and so deeply satisfying that I can’t imagine not being connected to this work in some way. Often people don’t realize that volunteering can give back as much — and even more — than they do. I’ve been able to translate the experiences from my volunteer work into business, relationships and a new way to envision my life and what I want from it.

Being a volunteer, as well as recruiting and training volunteers, has taught me that there are specific steps each person can take to create intentional, positive volunteer experiences. If you want to make your volunteering a life-changing experience, follow these 10 steps:

1. Choose a cause you care about.
Passion is what moves the world. If you want to make a difference and have a meaningful volunteer experience, it’s important to find a cause that speaks to you. Do you care how animals are treated, that elderly people have the support they need? Are you moved by children who suffer from hunger, or that the seas and rivers of our planet are being polluted? Your passion will ignite your action, and in turn, will provide you the dedication to assist organizations working to find solutions.

2. Choose the work you want to do.
It’s not selfish to want to enjoy your volunteer role — in fact, it works out better for you and the organization you work with because you’re much more likely to be consistent, dedicated and valuable. Does the idea of stuffing envelopes make you yawn? Then don’t volunteer to do that! Yes, there may be an urgent need for it, and perhaps you may decide you’re willing to do it once, but you’ll be far more effective and useful to the organization if you do things you like to do and do well. Funny how that works — you stay happy and the organization grows and prospers because of it.

3. Do your homework.
A good cause doesn’t always mean a good fit. All organizations are different. Some are all-volunteer and run without major funding or staff positions, some have paid staff and adhere to strict guidelines and rules of how to do their work. In the end, finding a mix of the cause you care about, the work you like to do and the environment or culture in which you fit best will make your experience memorable.

4. Decide what time you have to give and stick to it.
Boundaries are everything when it comes to volunteering. There is great need everywhere, and often, organizations run leanly with high turnover and little funding. But that doesn’t mean you have to give up your life to save the day. You will be happiest and do your best work when you feel good about how the volunteering fits into your life. If it threatens to take over more than you want, you may become resentful and end up quitting. Be clear with your organization about the time you have to donate.

5. Be open to new experiences–stretch yourself and build your portfolio.
The opportunities can be endless in volunteer organizations. Do you have a desire to gain skills in a particular area such as web design, marketing, project management, or public speaking? Where you’d have to have experience in the work world to get experience, it’s often the opposite in the volunteer world. Real-life training in many different areas translates into resume builders employers consider when looking for qualified candidates. I was nervous about volunteering to be the Director of Marketing for StandUp for Kids Seattle, yet in the end learned how to write press releases, to get invited as a guest on radio and television programs and to create and manage fundraising events and community awareness campaigns.

6. Be true to your word.
Absolutely the hardest thing for volunteer organizations to weather is no-shows and broken promises. You have an opportunity in volunteering to live with integrity and honor your commitments, and as long as you can follow Step #4, you should always be able to follow through on what you’ve promised, barring unforeseen circumstances. 
 
 Yes, there were many cold, rainy nights in Seattle when I felt the last thing I wanted to do was walk the streets for two hours. But, I knew there were kids depending on the gloves I carried in my backpack, or the smile I could share, and those kids had to be in the wet cold much longer than me. This mental reminder helped me honor my commitment to sign up and show up–regardless.

7. Enjoy your new team, friends and community!
One of the most rewarding parts of volunteering is the incredible people you meet. When you choose a cause you believe in, you’ll meet others with similar passion and values. It’s a perk of the job to be able to enjoy the camaraderie of new friends and inspiring conversations. Your world may open up in exciting new ways.

8. Spread the word, but don’t be a zealot.
When you find the cause that stirs your heart, you may want to tell everyone you know and sign them up as volunteers or donors. Go ahead and share your passion, but remember that over-zealousness can turn people away rather than bring them into the fold. Pace yourself and choose your donation or volunteer request moments. Use Facebook judiciously and tweet about the events or drives you feel most strongly about. People in your circle will want to support you — if you don’t chase them.

9. Know when it’s time to move on.
I’ve always told my new volunteers that they should find what they love to do and if that changes, find something else. Sometimes that means moving to another role or even another organization. If it feels like the dynamic of the organization has changed and isn’t a good fit anymore, or other opportunities are calling you, honor your commitment with your current group, communicate your intentions and then make your change. There are so many ways you can contribute.

10. Be grateful.
We live in an incredibly rich world filled with opportunity. It’s a privilege to have the extra time and resources to donate to others. Live in gratitude for all you have and share what you can with others, including your time and caring.

Volunteering can become more than just time donated when you see it as your unique way to give to your community. Make your volunteer experience all it can be — exciting, fulfilling, meaningful and enriching — by being intentional in your choices. Take the time to find what moves you and make your indelible mark on the world.

“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”

  • Mahatma Gandhi