From a personal and professional point of view, volunteering is priceless. It looks good on your resume, connects you to like-minded people, exposes you to new ideas and experiences, helps make the world a better place, and makes you feel good.
As you would expect, there are numerous and substantial benefits for the organizations and charities you are involved in as well. Volunteers provide organizations with manpower and assistance essential to meet their mission. In 2011, according to Volunteering America, 64.3 million Americans provided 8 billion hours of service at an estimated economic value of $171 billion.
But … there is more to volunteering than sheer numbers. If your employer requires you to help with its community relations program, you’ll want do the best job you can. The same thinking goes along with pursuing volunteer opportunities on your own. Often, a volunteer commitment is a perfect fit, but as is the case with any endeavor, sometimes the outcome isn’t what you expected or envisioned. Before you embark on a volunteer project of any size, you need to take a good look at several key components.
The first step in being a good volunteer is understanding why you even want to volunteer. Is it an organization you truly are excited and care about? A mission you are trying to advance for personal reasons? Is it because a friend asked you to get involved? Perhaps a romantic interest? Maybe it just looks good on your resume?
All of these reasons are perfectly valid, but because there is the potential to spend hours of time with one organization, you need to be honest with yourself to figure out the “why.”
Tied closely to motivation is commitment. Identify a cause or a problem you want to address through your volunteer work—a passion. If you truly believe in the work the charity is doing, it is much easier to find the time. A one-off volunteer opportunity instigated by your friends is perfectly fine, but just choosing a cause because your friends are involved is not necessarily enough to make you want to show up at a board meeting after a long day at work or haul materials to a golf tournament. Having the right combination of motivation and commitment can really impact your ability to be an effective volunteer.
Volunteering in any kind of capacity is very altruistic, but it also boils down to unpaid work. For most people, that means it might fall lower on their list of priorities—after work, family, exercise, friends, and pets. As a result, you should be realistic about your ability to volunteer. Do you have the time to devote? How big a project can you take on?
Remember, while it may look good on your resume to say you organized volunteers at the local food bank or chaired the summer fundraiser, if you don’t follow through with your promises, it can ruin your reputation and impact the success of the nonprofit you pledged to help.
Again, look at your motivation for getting involved and the amount of time you have available. Don’t promise to take on a large project when you don’t have the time. If you really can’t make it work, gracefully bow out, but keep in mind, where there is a will there is a way. Sometimes getting things done is just a matter of being a better time manager!
While it’s easy to step into a volunteer role thinking you are going to radically change an organization or truly save the world, it is best to have realistic expectations of how you can impact an organization. Share your expertise and knowledge, but know that you may not always be able to make big changes. As you learn the culture of the organization, you will discover ways to make suggestions that will be well received.
Think about how you want to be known: a dependable, passionate, dedicated, high-quality worker who can deliver, or someone who got in over their head and should have thought more about this commitment. In the end, the organizations you volunteer with and the type of volunteer you are reflect on you as a person. An unreliable performance can have far-reaching consequences beyond volunteering.