Signs of the Times
Becoming a Volunteer
Sure, the pay stinks, but volunteering may just be the best job you’ll ever have
My friend Barbara is getting an award next week as an outstanding woman in our Upstate New York community. She’s being recognized for her volunteer work, which is broad and varied. She has worked as an HIV educator, and has handed out condoms on the street in a poverty-stricken district of a nearby city. She has run sex education courses in local prisons. She teaches yoga to seniors and kids. She is the coordinator of volunteers for our town’s food co-op.
Barbara has found the secret of successful volunteering: doing work she’s good at and feels good about. There’s a tidal wave of unemployed and underemployed women lapping at the shores of pro bono work these days. If you’re among them, here’s what to consider as you look for a worthy way to dedicate your time.
Start out by checking out the nonprofits in your area: They can range from a soup kitchen to the PTA to a local outpost of the Nature Conservancy. Figure out what skills you bring, where you can be helpful, and what kind of work will reward you. I believe deeply in the mission of a local nature museum – to make sure that our children grow up as knowledgeable stewards of the environment – so that’s where I spend my volunteer time.
Then, think about your level of commitment. Do you want to serve on the board? (The time commitment is major, but so is the networking potential.) Are you comfortable with pledging one afternoon or evening a week? Or would you prefer a more ad hoc arrangement where the nonprofit knows they can call you when they need help? Leave your attitude at the door – you’re there to do what needs to be done – but also be realistic about work you’ll be willing to do long-term. If the future looks like an endless stack of envelopes to be stuffed, talk to your supervisor about getting the job done but also contributing more rewarding work. Once you’ve got your sights on a place, see if you can recruit a friend to volunteer with you. When you work together, it’s double the fun.
There are a number of web sites that can help match you up with the right nonprofit. Idealist.org posts paid jobs and pro-bono work at nonprofits countrywide. The Urban Institute’s National Center for Charitable Statistics has state-by-state listings of nonprofits.
Play your cards right, and volunteering could even lead to a new career. It did for Trevor Patzer, who left a consulting firm to found a charity in Nepal that gives scholarships to girls in Southeast Asia and was recently given an Unsung Hero award by the Dalai Lama.