The Comprehensive Guide to Volunteering

Arron Staradub
April 14, 2021

This is intended to be a comprehensive guide to volunteering, and will be updated regularly to stay relevant and up-to-date. So be sure to check back often!

Have you ever thought about volunteering but didn’t know where to start? You’re not alone.

Perhaps you’ve been wanting to help others and do good, but actually finding different nonprofits you’re interested in and applying to them can seem like a daunting task.

Or maybe there are certain causes that you care deeply about, but you can never find a volunteer opportunity related to those causes.

After a while it can almost seem like you’re applying to jobs rather than volunteering. The gap between wanting to help others and finding the right volunteer opportunity can sometimes be big enough to put you off volunteering all together.

Want to know the truth?

Volunteering is fun! And incredibly rewarding.

Yes, it may be challenging at times. But the most challenging parts are often finding the right organization to volunteer at, the right opportunity for you, and applying to the different opportunities.

The best part is that these challenges can be mitigated by having a better idea of how to find organizations you want to volunteer with, and understanding the different types of volunteering opportunities that exist (volunteering can take many different shapes and forms!).

What is Volunteering?

We couldn’t call this a comprehensive guide to volunteering without defining what volunteering even is! Especially since it can take so many different forms.

Simply put: volunteering is the voluntary act of giving your time and abilities to help others, for no financial compensation or gain. Volunteering can be as small as one person helping a stranger, to an entire organization banding together to create a large-scale change within their community.

Why Does Volunteering Matter?

Nonprofit organizations are often the bedrock that the communities they serve rest, and depend on, and they're vital to the economic health and stability of that community.

Nonprofits often provide key services to individuals in their communities, especially at-risk and minority populations; and they often provide such services completely free of charge or as affordably as possible.

The individuals and families that are helped by nonprofits gain access to much needed resources that improve their life, and in-turn have more resources of their own (time and money) to spend on other things that they may need to flourish; which often come from the businesses of the community they reside in.

The ironic part?

Nonprofits are often lacking in resources, themselves. They’re often underfunded, and lack the people (because they can’t afford to hire them) to do as much good as they like. And this is where volunteers come in.

Volunteers supplement and support the good work that nonprofits do by providing their time and abilities.

Just as nonprofits are vital to the health of communities, volunteers are vital to the health of nonprofits.

Why Volunteer in The First Place?

Everyone will have their own reasons for volunteering; and no reason is necessarily better than another.

While some people that volunteer do so out of an inherent desire or passion to help others, and the feeling of doing good is the only compensation they need, that isn’t the only benefit of volunteering.

Other benefits of volunteering include:

  • Improved mental health
  • Stress reduction
  • Socializing and a feeling of connection to other people
  • A greater sense of purpose
  • Networking
  • Build professional relationships
  • Get references
  • Skill development (develop new skills, refine the ones you already have)
  • Keeps skills fresh
  • Increase social skills, relationship-building, and teamwork
  • Builds confidence and self-esteem
  • Resume building
  • Helps understand and determine life and career goals
  • Career advancement
  • It’s fun and feels good
  • Community-building
  • Gets you involved in your current community
  • Better relationships with colleagues (team volunteering)
  • More engagement and fulfillment at work

Types of Volunteering

Not all volunteering looks the same. And that’s part of the fun.

But it can also present a challenge because some people may not even be aware of the different ways they can volunteer, or the types of nonprofits they can connect with.

For simplicity’s sake, we’ll break down volunteering into 3 parts:

  1. Types of volunteer opportunities
  2. Impact areas
  3. Dynamics

These are three parts of one whole; so a single volunteer opportunity will have all three components.

1. Types of Volunteer Opportunities

When the term “volunteering” is mentioned it tends bring up images of picking up garbage at the beach, painting fences, or helping at fundraisers, but those are just the tip of the iceberg!

Formal

Formal volunteering opportunities are any volunteer opportunity that is structured and supervised.

These types of opportunities often have specific procedures in place, may require training before starting, and are often overseen by a manager or supervisor to ensure successful completion.

Formal volunteer opportunities often have specific goals and outcomes that can be measured, and ways to check for quality of services being completed.

Some examples of formal volunteer positions include hospital volunteers, fundraising volunteers, and soup kitchens.

Non-formal

Non-formal volunteer opportunities are volunteer opportunities that are unstructured, and are typically unfunded and done in the local community.

Those involved in non-formal volunteer programs often see themselves as friends or members, rather than volunteers.

Examples of non-formal volunteer work includes neighbourhood watch, and litter clean-up.

Governance or leadership

Governance volunteer work tends to involve leadership roles within a nonprofit organization. They may  help lead the direction, strategy, planning, and decision-making of the organization that they’re a part of.

And their skills and experience in their professional and personal lives only make them more valuable to the organizations they help.

An example of a governance volunteering opportunity may be as a Member of the Board or a particular Committee for a nonprofit organization.

Skill-based projects

Skill-based projects are volunteer opportunities where the volunteer uses their skills, professional experience, and expertise to help a nonprofit with a specific project.

These projects are often vital for the nonprofit to fully reach their goals, but are often unable to be completed due to lack of trained staff and lack of funds to hire outside help.

Examples of skill-based projects are helping design or develop a nonprofit’s website, helping create marketing, social media and promotional materials, and helping a nonprofit with their HR procedures and processes.

Strategic advising and Consulting

Similar to skill-based projects, strategic advising and consulting volunteers tend to have professional skills and experience that they use to provide advice and guidance to nonprofits.

Volunteers leverage their experience and knowledge to help nonprofits tackle particular problems, advise them on strategy, planning, internal processes and more.

Examples of strategic advising and consulting volunteer work include discussing nonprofit governance and inclusion, HR guidance, strategizing marketing campaigns, and financial and legal advice.

2. Impact Areas

Often when discussing “types” of volunteer opportunities that are out there, people tend to refer to specific causes that a nonprofit is working towards.

Such conversations may talk about volunteering opportunities related to wildlife conservation, poverty and homelessness, or a specific disease.

Another way to talk about volunteering, that’s quickly gaining popularity, are the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

These goals were adopted by all UN Member States in 2015 as a universal call to action, and every nonprofit working on a cause (and thus every volunteer opportunity) can usually be described in relation to one or more of these goals.

The 17 UN SDGs:

  1. No poverty
  2. Zero hunger
  3. Good health and well-being
  4. Quality education
  5. Gender equality
  6. Clean water and sanitation
  7. Affordable and clean energy
  8. Decent work and economic growth
  9. Industry , innovation and infrastructure
  10. Reduced inequalities
  11. Sustainable cities and communities
  12. Responsible consumption and production
  13. Climate action
  14. Life below water
  15. Life on land
  16. Peace, justice and strong institutions
  17. Partnerships for the goals

3. Dynamics

Last but not least are the dynamics of the volunteer opportunity. Simply put, this just describes how you’ll interact with the nonprofit staff, other volunteers (if any), and how the work will be completed.

Online & virtual volunteering

Volunteering used to predominantly be done in-person, but this has changed in recent years.

Technology has made it possible to work and collaborate online, and the recent pandemic has only made remote work and related technology flourish.

It’s now possible to volunteer completely virtually, doing the work online, and using video-calling services like Zoom to collaborate with nonprofits and their teams.

This can be seen as a win-win for both nonprofits and volunteers, as volunteer opportunities available, and the valuable skills from volunteers, are able to be shared more easily than ever.

Individual vs team volunteering

Individual volunteering

Individual volunteering can range from being an extra set of hands to a local nonprofit, to being part of a larger group of individual volunteers, such as at a soup kitchen or fundraiser.

It’s also possible to be an independent volunteer working one-on-one with nonprofits and their staff such as with skill-based projects or a strategic advisor or consultant role.

Team volunteering

Team volunteering is quickly becoming popular, especially within companies that have employee volunteer programs.

Team volunteering is when a small group of volunteers (usually working for the same company) volunteer to do a project for a nonprofit, working in unison to accomplish amazing work in a short amount of time.

Examples of team volunteering may be when a small team designs and builds a website for a nonprofit, or by sharing industry experience and revamping the way the nonprofit does something such as their finances, HR processes, governance and inclusion, and even their marketing campaigns.

How to Choose The Right Volunteer Opportunity

Putting it all together.

Most volunteer opportunities will have a type, will tackle a specific impact area, and have a certain dynamic.

Once you figure out what you’re looking for in all three of these categories, finding the perfect volunteer opportunity and nonprofit to work with will be much easier.

Before you go searching out organizations to donate your time with, take a second to ask yourself a few questions.

  • What level of commitment are you looking for?
  • Do you want to volunteer short-term or long-term?
  • What type of volunteer opportunity are you looking for?
  • What impact areas are you passionate about?
  • What dynamic are you interested in working in?
  • What are you hoping to get out of the experience?

Last but not least:

  • How will you find the nonprofit and volunteer opportunity?

How to Find Nonprofits & Volunteer Opportunities

Finding nonprofits that are working on impact areas you’re passionate about AND have the type and dynamic of volunteer opportunity you’re looking for is often the most difficult part about volunteering.

The good news:

Technology has made finding nonprofits and volunteer opportunities easier than ever.

There are countless Facebook and social media groups dedicated to non-formal volunteer opportunities.

Formal volunteer opportunities such as an auxiliary or hospital volunteer, or hospice worker can often be found directly on their websites or with a quick Google search.  

Also, it’s more likely than not that you already know people that volunteer, they may just not talk about it. Reaching out to those you know is another way to get started.

If you’re interested in skill-based projects, governance or leadership, and strategic advising and consulting there are online community platforms entirely dedicated to matching volunteers with such opportunities.

Our favorite community for skill-based and strategic advising volunteer opportunities?

(shameless plug)

MeaningfulWork.

Here at MeaningfulWork we’ve dedicated our lives to connecting passionate and skilled volunteers with nonprofits for skill-based volunteering, strategic advising and consulting, and governance and leadership roles.

Nonprofits have the ability to post the projects and advice they need to reach their goals. And volunteers get to give their biggest assets: their skills, experience, expertise, and time.

MeaningfulWork empowers volunteers to find volunteer opportunities based on the type, impact area of the nonprofit, and dynamic of opportunity; allowing you to give what you’re best at, from anywhere.

The best part is that once your account is made, you can apply to volunteer opportunities directly on the platform with just a single click. One account, one click, endless opportunities.

Summary

Volunteering is fun, fulfilling, vital for nonprofits (which are vital to your community), and has countless personal and professional benefits.

The most challenging part of volunteering is often figuring out what kind of volunteering you’d like to do, and how to find a nonprofit and volunteer opportunity that matches your personal values and goals.

There are two parts to making this challenge easier.

The first is by figuring out the type of volunteer opportunity you're looking for, the impact area that you’re passionate about, and the dynamic you’d enjoy working in.

The second is by figuring out the method you’re going to use to find the right nonprofit and volunteer opportunity for you.

If you’re looking for skill-based projects, governance and leadership roles, or strategic advising and consulting, MeaningfulWork is the best and easiest option for you.

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