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Magazines > Searcher > June 2010
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Vol. 18 No. 5 — June 2010
For Our Next (Charitable) Trick, We’ll Need a Volunteer
by Cecilia Hogan
Director, University Relations Research, University of Puget Sound

Remember your first time? Most people do. You were probably about 12 years old. Sitting in the classroom on a cool late fall day, Mrs. Anderson (or McNally or Delrio) asked, “Who can help us organize the food drive this month?” You eagerly raised your hand.

In the weeks that followed, you had more fun that you could have imagined. Asking your parents for permission to add a few things to the grocery shopping cart on Saturday opened a conversation with them about giving. Chatting and laughing with your classmates as you lined up the cans of soup and the bags of rice and packed them into boxes for the truck from the food bank deepened your friendships and made you feel good. When the truck arrived to pick up the contributions you and your friends had solicited and organized, you nearly burst with pride.

Or, as a scout, you heard your leader announce, “On Saturday we’re going to clean up that little park near the corner of Main and 12th, the one where the grass is overgrown and trash has been accumulating. Who can help?” You shouted, “I can!” Your troop leader gave you a trash bag and thick gloves like the ones your father wore when he pruned the hedge. You tired yourself out picking up bottles, cans, faded newspapers, fast-food wrappers, and other bits of trash that sunny spring day. At the end of the day, the park looked beautiful. The grass was cut, the garbage was gone, and the volunteers had planted flowers along the walkway to the benches. You beamed as you looked at what your team had accomplished in just a single day.

You Aren’t What You Used to Be (And Neither Is the Nonprofit World)

You aren’t 12 anymore. You don’t have teachers and scout leaders to direct you toward fulfilling volunteer experiences. In fact, the world of volunteerism shifted dramatically while you were away. The need for volunteers never disappeared, but it gained a new urgency as information about need spread from our newspapers to our televisions to our email boxes and our cellular phones. You can’t not know where need is greatest now.

But you can’t fly to Haiti or Chile, can you? At least, most of us can’t. And disaster relief work might not be the best use of your skills. You might have strong opinions about where and how you’d like to help others. You may believe that the most urgent help is needed in your own backyard. You may favor causes that help children, women, those of your faith, the elderly, or the arts. Well actually, the list is endless, isn’t it?

In the fund-raising business, we often say that those who give money do so because they have no time to give. We know how valuable time is. We realize that, for people whose assets depend on their daily efforts to keep the pot filled or filling, giving money is easier than giving time. Thank you very much, we say, because there are things that cannot happen without financial support (paying the light bill comes to mind).

Even with dollars in the door, the relationship between a nonprofit and its supporters can be as complex as the ones between family members. Just like family relationships, it isn’t about who does what and when. The quality of the interactions matters. There is no better way to learn about a nonprofit than by volunteering. For the nonprofit, facilitating successful volunteer experiences is another way to do more than get work done. It is a way to build a group of dedicated supporters, some of whom will support the nonprofit with financial gifts one day. We might say that what begins as a transactional relationship becomes transformational for all involved. That defines the best experience for both the volunteer and the nonprofit.

To add the newest twist to volunteering, you may wonder if you can be even more efficient about time and volunteer from your own living room. The hours when most volunteer opportunities occur just do not work for you. Glad to meet ya, Virtual Volunteer. Join the troops.

The Volunteer Ethos

How can we define the distinctive spirit and value system of the volunteer culture? It begins with a commitment to share your time with others with little expectation of a return. While the experience is a transaction — you, the volunteer, provide a skill, and the nonprofit provides you with a place and time to use that skill for others — the outcome is not. The nonprofit’s capacity and potential are changed by the volunteers who help it serve its population. The population served is changed by the help received. And, ultimately, the volunteer is changed by the personal growth experienced through giving. The act of volunteering is itself transformational.

How can you be a good volunteer? VolunteerMatch, one of the sites you’ll learn about shortly, reports three rules for a good volunteer experience:

1. Be professional.

2. Honor your commitments.

3. Extend gratitude for any training you receive.

Your responsibility begins with doing your best to match your skills with the nonprofit’s needs. As in any successful relationship, you are responsible for sharing what is working and what is not as your volunteer role unfolds. If you find yourself ill-suited for the work assigned, speak up about it.

The nonprofit has a responsibility to facilitate every chance for success in your volunteer experience. The onus is great. Your experience can become a positive or negative report for the nonprofit. What you share later with friends and family might spread far and wide. The reputations which nonprofits build are often deeply linked to reports on the volunteer experience. Think of the nonprofits you’ve seen going into a crisis and performing stellar work. Your esteem for such an organization rose each time, didn’t it?

Your Volunteer Resume

Now, that’s funny to think about, isn’t it? The importance of your work resume might fluctuate with where you are in your career. As you travel up the ascending escalator, the skills you acquire, your time in a position, and the way your responsibilities expand over that time matter.

What does a volunteer resume look like? The very same qualities of a work resume take on a deeper meaning when you think about the human urge to connect and serve. Do you have a volunteer resume? If you wrote one today, would it tell the story well of the causes you care about most?

Get Started

Let’s explore a few ways to find volunteer opportunities near where you live and far, far away. These resources should be viewed as examples only. If what you are looking for doesn’t appear in these resources, there are many more to explore. You may always begin your exploration with your favorite locale and cause, or a charity you already know and love.

Network for Good

Network for Good helps charities get financial support, but it also provides a robust volunteer interface through VolunteerMatch []. Go to the Support Any Charity box and flip from Donate to Volunteer. You will find more than 66,000 organizations looking for your help. I know that’s a lot, but don’t worry: The magic of electronic searching gives you a chance to narrow the choices.

VolunteerMatch reports that a quarter of the visitors who get involved through its site are first-time volunteers; half of them are under 30 years of age. Is that you? If not, again don’t worry; there is plenty for everyone here.

Begin with the Get Started page. Isn’t it nice when web touring is that logical? You’ll learn how to use the search tool, which offers you searching for volunteer opportunities by city, ZIP code, and even within a specific mile range. Be sure to notice the “I want help” button to, well, get help with your search.

Here’s the best part. Register with VolunteerMatch and the organization you pick will get a message from them sharing your information with the nonprofit. It’s almost like a volunteering dating service.

From the advanced search page, you can fine-tune your search. You can qualify your search by type of opportunity, your skill set, organization name, “preferred partners” (the drop-down includes the names of large national nonprofits), and opportunity interest areas. The latter lists causes such as advocacy, animals, arts and culture, children, education and literacy, environment — you get the idea. You can even limit your search by the age group you are in — kids, teens, or 55 and older.

I searched for opportunities within 10 miles of my home. The results returned more than 200 volunteer roles for me to explore. Try to read this list and not find something you’d like to do:

  • Park restoration
  • Basketball coach
  • Spanish teacher
  • Reading tutor
  • Volunteer attorneys
  • Volunteer dentists
  • Boys & Girls Clubs volunteers
  • Homework help
  • Marketing assistant for a farmer’s market
  • Prison pet project where dogs are being trained to be assist animals
  • Big Brothers Big Sisters Read 2 Me
  • Volunteer planting
  • Spring break assistant at the children’s museum

Back to the search, and this time notice the Search for Virtual Opportunities checkbox.

When I searched for virtual volunteer opportunities, the world expanded from that 10 miles from my home to thousands and thousands of miles away. The number of opportunities grew to 3,000! The type of opportunities narrowed, of course. No planting, no trail restoration, no basketball. Here were the choices the day I searched:

  • Software developer intern
  • Parent mentor database participant (your college admissions process experience)
  • Occupational mentor (students contact you regarding your profession)
  • Prayer volunteer
  • Business mentor (small business owners connect with business mentors)
  • Writer/editor for a child advocacy group
  • Part-time web developer
  • Online financial literacy coach
  • Brochure designer
  • Grant research

Did I mention the disaster volunteering tab? You can review the disaster volunteer and relief map with the number of opportunities in your state. My state’s number was 46 and, unlike those of you living in states with flooding, fires, tornadoes, and other disasters, we’ve been relatively untouched in recent months. It looks like the volunteer role may be to prepare for disaster and stand at the ready. The opportunities list is as follows:

  • Disaster shelter volunteer
  • Disaster action team responder
  • Liaison translator
  • Damage assessment volunteer

Remember when I mentioned those of us who cannot fly off to Haiti or Chile? Well, there are virtual opportunities in disaster relief. My search returned these volunteer roles:

  • Web developer
  • Grant writer
  • Music composer
  • Lead generator for finding funds
  • Volunteer fundraiser
  • Volunteers to be in contact with troops
  • Newsletter manager

The next time “How can I help?” races through your heart and brain as you watch the evening news, you’ll know where to go to find out.

VolunteerMatch doesn’t leave volunteers swimming out there in the sea of opportunity all on their own. The site includes webinars about how to be a great volunteer, how to locate the right volunteer role, and how to evaluate opportunities in order to pick the best one for you. The Stories tab is the spot to finish your coffee and learn more. I read about Emily’s experience at a children’s museum, Gene’s volunteer time at an outdoor education center, Michael teaching entrepreneurship, and Joan greeting Marines.

And don’t worry about having enough ways to keep up with the smart folks at VolunteerMatch. If you don’t find them, they’ll probably find you with all the blogging, Facebooking, Myspacing, Twittering, and LinkedIn they do.

Begin at this volunteer matching service and you will learn about the nationwide initiative, “United We Serve,” designed “to help meet growing social needs resulting from the economic downturn.” You will be invited to do the following:

  • Create a project
  • Register your project
  • Recruit volunteers
  • Find a volunteer opportunity

As soon as you select searching for volunteer opportunities, you will go to

All for Good

All for Good may be particularly interesting to information professionals. Created by engineers, programmers, and web designers, its solid e-free tradition provides an open platform for finding volunteer opportunities.

Select apps and begin your exploration. Add All for Good’s gadget to your iGoogle, blog, or webpage. Learn about volunteer opportunities on other websites. Another app allows you to use your phone as your platform for discovering volunteer opportunities. Want to know how many Americans are volunteering right now? All for Good’s CauseCast widget does just that. (Oh, my . . . 5.1 million and counting.)

A favorite feature at All for Good supports narrowing volunteer opportunities by “when.” You specify what time you want to serve: anytime, today, this weekend, this week, this month. Yes, we’ve arrived at a world where you can get up in the morning, shower, eat toast, and then check your medias for an afternoon volunteer experience.

Community is the key at this and most volunteer sites. Tweet, Facebook, or use whichever social network you prefer for staying in touch with your v-posse, Dude. is a project of Action Without Borders. You’ll find the full range of volunteer interaction here, as well as a couple of unique ones. In addition to searching for opportunities or posting your own organization’s needs, you can start a volunteer affinity group and invite your friends to meet you on the site. You can join discussion forums centered on issues such as nonprofit job hunting, specific causes, and education. Best of all, you can sign up for alerts for new opportunities that match the interests you outline.

When it comes to finding volunteer opportunities, the search tool is a Mercedes. Like ordering the leather interior, heated seats, and tinted windows, you can search by keyword, area of focus (a drop-down), language, city, postal code, and state or province. You can search by country and, surprise, surprise, one of the location options is (drum roll here) the country of Virtual. What a world!

And we’re not even to “advanced search” yet. Now add a skills-needed drop-down, a language-needed drop-down, for whom the project is appropriate (kids 12 and under, teens, adults, seniors, families, groups), and the date range for when you are available.

For my virtual search, 80 results were returned. I could help a YMCA in Arizona, work on a wiki for disaster management, write grants or public relations pieces, serve as a webmaster, or work on logo and letterhead design. All from the laptop on my desk at home.

When I searched for volunteer opportunities in my hometown, one of the results returned was for help at an art museum that I can see out my window. I felt as if I had just raced around the world, only to get back home in a nanosecond.

Want to spend some time in the national and state parks? Nothing virtual for you here, ma’am. This resource bills itself as “America’s natural and cultural resources volunteer portal.” Search for volunteer opportunities by state or keyword, location, agency, or type of opportunity.

I found a chance to help with trail construction in the San Juan Islands. Just think . . . eagles overhead, orcas breaching offshore. You’d like to come along, right?

As Close to Home as Next Door

Your city, county, or state may have a volunteer portal. For example, [] offers a list of volunteer opportunities. The day I looked, agencies needed help at the aquarium and with recycling, general cleanups, the courts, the pea patch gardens, parks, the public library, urban creeks, the zoo, or with tutoring.


Servenet is one of the internet’s grandmamas of service. Founded in 1996 to help facilitate volunteering by young people in 155 countries, this resource is in its fifth iteration. It now connects users via blogs, newsfeeds, and mobile messaging. As youthful as you can be, check out the iBelong page, where those interested build personal customizable pages for their volunteer profiles. Each user can then log volunteer preferences, track volunteer time spent, blog about their service experience, and develop an online service network. Step aside Facebook while we enter the world of deeply meaningful social media.

The search permits limiting by location (state, city, ZIP, within a miles range), skills, and populations served. This one also offers unscheduled and scheduled events and volunteer age range.

United Nations Volunteers (UNV)

These volunteer experience have only virtual options. One of the United Nation’s programs is to mobilize volunteers for development all over the world. They must be doing a pretty good job at it because, in 2008, all 5,300 volunteer opportunities at the site attracted applicants. The UNV’s tag line is: “Share your skills, knowledge and ideas — from a computer anywhere in the world.” Wait a second. We’ve been thinking about how the opportunity is virtual. Did we realize that now you, the volunteer, are virtual, too?

The search can be by task, development topics, and region. Tasks include opportunities to write, edit, research, translate, design, train, coach, and work on technology and project development. My search returned chances to write articles, help with a newsletter, develop instructions for solar cookers, or help with grant proposals.

If nothing appeals to you today, you can create an alert to receive email notifications when an opportunity arises that matches your search. You can follow developments by RSS feed, too.

World Volunteer Web

The UNV partners with several other organizations in the World Volunteer Web, a clearinghouse for information and resources for volunteerism. The site describes itself as a gathering place where its 20,000 organizations and individuals can coordinate volunteer activities and find references to volunteer data (news, events, other documents). Use the site’s how-to guides to learn more about being a volunteer from several perspectives.

Make a Difference, v2.0

Newscaster Tom Brokaw is credited with saying, “It’s easy to make a buck. It’s a lot tougher to make a difference.” In reality, it is amazingly easy to make a difference. Millions of volunteers do it every day. They read to children, feed the homeless, rock babies, design websites, raise money, collect clothing, advise teams, and perform countless other acts that demonstrate an astonishing range of skill and talent. Your chance to join their ranks burst open with the growth of electronic options to find volunteer opportunities and to volunteer right from your laptop. See? I didn’t say “from your home” because you can now volunteer wherever you and your electronics are. What a time to be alive and enriching your life through volunteering!

From the Nonprofit’s Perspective

Reviewing a list of chores a nonprofit should complete before engaging volunteers can help volunteers know which questions to ask before entering into any long-term volunteer role. Here are some of the nonprofit’s tasks in making volunteer experiences successful for all involved:

  • Create job descriptions for each volunteer role.
  • Offer training for volunteers.
  • Provide volunteers with the equipment needed to complete the tasks.
  • Outline communication policies and expectations.
  • Design processes for addressing tardiness, performance issues, poorly matched skills and needs, and other site-specific issues.
  • Establish policies about acceptable behavior with clients and constituents that will protect and support both populations.
  • Develop a volunteer review policy and provide volunteers with information (in writing) about their performance.
  • Ask volunteers for feedback and develop better programs based on that information.
  • Set a length of service and renewal options for both the volunteer and the organization.
  • Recognize and celebrate the accomplishments of the volunteers.

Cecilia Hogan is Director, University Relations Research at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Wash. Her e-mail address is

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