Stand Out From the Pack As a Great Volunteer.
Volunteering gives you the opportunity to work on issues that you care about, especially if it's not something you can do during your day job. It also helps you make new friends and connections in the community and sharpen your skills or learn new ones.
But as an "extracurricular" activity that often falls below family, work, health, and friends on your priority list, it also requires some realistic planning and time management for the best experience—both for yourself and for the organization you choose to support.
Over the past seven years in DC, I've been a volunteer and also managed quite a few. Here are some tips on how to be a truly awesome volunteer and get the most out of the experience.
Pick a cause you believe in. Do some research and make sure it's an organization you understand well, and one you're willing to devote time to, whether it's after work one day a week, every weekend, or a more ongoing commitment. If you're unclear on the organization's goals or want some clarification, don't be shy about reaching out and asking!
Be proactive, but not too proactive. Once you choose the organization, now the fun begins! There's a fine balance between self-direction and direct guidance from the organization or volunteer manager. As a volunteer, you are offering assistance to a group that probably has limited resources and could really use your expertise. In fact, despite their need, they might not have a lot of bandwidth to manage volunteers. In my experience, many volunteer managers are volunteers themselves—especially at smaller organizations—and sometimes volunteers and their projects can fall through the cracks. These leaders are also likely fielding questions for other volunteers, recruiting new folks, and filling in for volunteers who flake or offer substandard work, all in addition to managing their own daily tasks.
You should communicate regularly with your volunteer manager about the work you're doing for them, and offer some skills and time that you can realistically devote to the organization. Be patient if it takes a few days for them to get back to you. Every quarter or so, I'd also suggest asking for honest feedback on your work, if appropriate. This helps builds your own skills and gives the nonprofit the top-notch work they're looking for: a win-win!
Put your work into context. Sometimes it's hard to see the work you're doing as part of a greater cause, especially if you're cleaning up after a benefit or doing data entry. Thinking about the broader impact of your work helps you stay motivated and upbeat. Try to keep in mind the organization's mission and vision and how their goals are changing the world for the better. Hey, you're part of that!
Be willing to feel a bit uncomfortable. Volunteering might take you out of your comfort zone. You'll probably be interacting with a wider variety of people (including fellow volunteers!), trying out a new skill set, or facing a difficult issue head on, particularly if you're volunteering at a direct service organization. Be willing to roll with the punches. CAVEAT: You don't deserve to feel harassed or triggered. If something or someone makes you feel unsafe or violated, you should let your volunteer manager know. And the same goes for emotionally draining or triggering causes or situations.
Recognize your privilege. Volunteers are unpaid, able to devote time, and typically have not experienced many of the social injustices they are working to alleviate. There are exceptions, of course, but it's critical to be aware of your privilege as a volunteer. This will help you be more self-aware and more compassionate towards the community you're working to help.
Don't overpromise or overextend yourself. This is a hard one for many people (myself included). It's easy to get overeager or ambitious. But take some time and seriously consider the time you have, the energy you have, and your skill set. Be honest with yourself and your volunteer manager upfront. Of course, things happen—LIFE happens—but try to give them notice and not an eleventh hour crisis. Along those lines...
Show up. This one is a biggie. It's important that you keep your commitments. Things happen, of course, but try your best to let your volunteer manager know in advance if you can't make it that day, or ask if you can send a sub. A last minute brunch invitation is not a valid excuse to skip your shift.
Bring the energy and passion. The number one thing you can bring to the table is all that passion you have for the cause! When you keep your energy up, especially when you're volunteering in public, it spreads to others! Who knows, maybe you can inspire others to donate or volunteer for the cause.