Saturday, October 29, 2011

November to Remember - Get Ready to Give!

So for those of you who read my last post and are ready to accept my invitation and do some good in November here's the help I promised to share about volunteering. I have worked as a volunteer/program coordinator for a small non-profit working directly with visually impaired individuals. I have also worked as a volunteer manager for a larger non-profit that didn't provide direct service to clients. I have learned so much from both experiences and if I can share what I have learned to help others give back then none of my time will have been wasted. So... Here we go my top 10 tips to get volunteering today!

1. Volunteering doesn't have to be hard. It's true. Giving back does not have to be a huge formal affair requiring a two year commitment (though those opportunities do exist). For those who want to give back it can be as simple as taking a meal to a family in need, volunteering at your kids school or helping a neighbor. I can say personally how sharing something as simple as one meal can make a difference in someones life.

While Russell was in the NICU the local LDS church was kind enough to have many of their families provide meals for Joe and I. We have never attended church here and none of these people knew us personally but they were all willing to give to help someone in need. We had meals delivered three times a week providing us with a meal, often homemade, that let us save money and time. We were of course focused on being there for Russell so knowing that our needs for food were being met by others was such a blessing.

2. Decide how much time you have. Most organizations require a specific commitment in order for you to volunteer. It could be once a week for a year, 2 year minimum commitment or at least 3 hours at a time. These time commitments help the organization provide the best services they can for their clients. It takes time to bring in new volunteers including screening, training and orienting you to their organization. You want to be sure that what the organization needs is a match to what you feel you can provide. Of course if you later find the organization is not right for you, you do have options to say goodbye.

When I worked with volunteers I would have much rather known if your schedule would fit with our organizations needs because if not I could always refer you to another organization. Many non-profit organizations are short staffed and time spent bringing in new volunteers is time spent away from those who are there seeking services. When I would provide orientation for new volunteers I couldn't be working to address our clients needs. I loved sharing what the organization was about with potential volunteers but I also loved working with the people who were there being served. 

3. Direct or indirect service. Volunteers can typically fit into two categories, those providing direct service and those providing indirect service. Direct service volunteers are those serving meals to the homeless, reading books to children or sharing time with seniors. Direct service volunteers should be empathetic, kind and committed since you are working with people in need. Indirect service volunteers are those providing office support, fundraising or doing other things that don't necessarily involve the clients the organization benefits. Indirect service is perfect for those who want to make a difference but might not be ready or able to work directly with others.

No matter if you want to work with people or work behind the scenes your time and talents make an impact for the organization. Each organization has specific needs that help their organization run smoothly from answering the phones to reading to kids. Once you're volunteering with an organization you might see other ways you can help which can expand your volunteer responsibilities to help in other ways.

4. Figure out what inspires you. Taking the first steps to volunteer can be scary but having an idea of what interests and inspires you will help you find something that will be a good fit. Take the time to think about what you want to do. Has your family been impacted by cancer? Then maybe you want to give back to an organization that works with cancer patients or that does cancer research. Do you love being outdoors? Perhaps an organization with an environmental focus is best for you. Some ideas of typical areas of interest are children/youth, seniors, animals, veterans, health issues and the environment. No matter what you choose if you are passionate about what you're doing you're more likely to enjoy it and stick with it.

It always amazed me how many people would call or email saying they wanted to volunteer but had no idea how or where they want to volunteer. There are literally hundreds of opportunities to volunteer so knowing what you want to do can help you find something that will work for you and your schedule.

5. Find your best fit. Volunteering will be much more fun if you know what your needs are. In addition to the time commitment and type of service there are other things to consider. Can you drive across town or will you need to walk or take a bus to volunteer? Do you like to work in groups or would you rather volunteer alone? Do you want to do something specific or are you willing to do whatever is needed? The answers to these questions can help you further narrow down your options to find something that will work for you.

The better you can articulate what you are looking to do the more likely you are to find an organization that will likely be a good fit for you. The organization you want to work with will likely interview you but don't be afraid to ask questions of them to make sure the opportunities they have are what you're looking for. 

6. Consider the non-traditional. You might think volunteering is only the people helping out in the hospital or those spending time with kids but in reality there are options that can fit anyone's schedule. If you have a specific skill or talent to share you might be able to volunteer from home doing things like knitting scarves for patients, producing a newsletter or updating a website. Don't be afraid to offer your specific skill or talent if you have an organization you are working with. You never know when the organization you love could use your accounting, fundraising, marketing or computer skills. You can also participate in charity walks/runs to help raise awareness and money towards the cause. There are also organizations like Soldiers Angels where you adopt a soldier and write a letter once a week and send a care package once a month. This would allow you to volunteer without doing more than popping a letter in the mail and sending a package.

I signed up for Soldiers Angels and really enjoyed it. I sent handwritten letters every week and put together simple packages each month. My packages would consist of things I liked and things I found on sale. It was easy to buy a couple extra things to send when I was already out shopping for myself so it was really nothing more than an extra trip to the post office once a month to mail the package. My letters were always simple and basically were a narrative of what was going on in my life at the time. I think it's a perfect opportunity for anyone who wants to volunteer but can't commit to a regular schedule. 

7. Look into all your options. There are great organizations that most everyone knows about like Red Cross, Salvation Army or American Cancer Society but don't be afraid to try a smaller or local organization if you're looking to do something new or different. You can find great opportunities to volunteer by asking your friends and family or by using a volunteer search website like Volunteer Match or a local HandOn Network affiliate. These search sites allow you to narrow down opportunities by things like area of interest, zip code or key word.

The bonus of using a volunteer search site is the fact you can search anytime that's convenient for you. Also some of the opportunities you'll find are one time opportunities that allow you to volunteer for a variety of causes when it's most convenient for you. Not all opportunities require a huge commitment. Things like charity walks, fundraising events or other large gatherings typically need a large amount of volunteers and often don't have as many requirements like a long term volunteer opportunity. It's easy to volunteer when you can and across a variety of organizations. Plus you never know when you'll find something that you love and want to do more often.

8. Volunteer with others. If you've never volunteered before or just like working with others volunteering with friends or family might be a good option for you. You can look for a local Meetup group to join that could provide opportunities to volunteer at a variety of places and make new friends. If you're looking to volunteer with children/youth under 18 just know there may be more steps involved for the kids. Some organizations let children volunteer with parental supervision and others won't allow kids at all. Some organizations have certain things kids can do but may not let kids work directly with clients. Make sure you ask questions. It will save you and the organization time and you won't get your kids excited about doing something they may or may not be able to do. Also know your kids limitations. Volunteering for an environmental clean up in the desert might not be the best opportunity for someone with kids in a stroller.

I met some great people from a local Meetup group that volunteered all over town. The group leaders set up opportunities at a variety of organizations and then volunteers could sign up for what interested them. This is very helpful if you haven't volunteered before because a lot of the work and research is done for you. Plus you'll likely be volunteering with the same people giving you the opportunity to make new friends who share similar interests and a passion for helping others.

9. Make it a tradition. Maybe you can't volunteer all the time but you can give back once a year. There are great opportunities to get involved with things like thanksgiving meals and toy donations during the holidays. Of course there is always a need for cash or in-kind donations if you can't get out and physically volunteer. You can also commit to giving blood three times a year which lets you plan your volunteering so all you have to do is show up and give at your scheduled times. These types of opportunities can be easily done with the whole family since even young kids can help shop for toys that will be donated to a family in need.

Last year Joe and I participated in the Adopt a Family program through HELP of Southern Nevada. You're able to specify the size of family you can serve, you are assigned a family and then you shop til you drop and provide a happy holiday for a family in need. It was easy and convenient for us to put together gifts of clothes and toys for the young son of a single mom. We also put together a basket of food and cooking supplies that would help the mom and her son. I always love Christmas and I hope that we are always in a position that we can provide for other families in need during the holidays.

Our gifts for the family we adopted.

10. Know when to say goodbye. Just because you thought an opportunity or organization is right for you doesn't mean you have to stick with it if you're not enjoying yourself. You'll be much more genuine and happy if you're doing something you love. Don't be afraid to let the organization know it's not working out and then find something else. Plus if you thought you'd be doing one thing and found yourself doing something else simply speaking up can clarify things and might help you to continue to work with the organization. If not your feedback can help the organization with future volunteers.

I don't recommend just disappearing from an organization if you have made a commitment. Letting the organization know why you're leaving can also help them improve their volunteer recruitment efforts. Also the clients may have grown to like and expect you to show up and if you disappear the organization may have nothing to tell clients who ask about you which can leave them feeling like they've been abandoned or done something wrong. 

Hopefully these tips have helped you figure out how you can get involved in your community. If you have a volunteering tip please share it! Join me in doing some good in November then come back and comment about what you've done. You can also leave a link to your own blog if you post about what you're doing. I really hope to see a lot of folks getting out and helping others. I know I have so much to be thankful for and I want to share what I can with others.

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