Getting Started in Community Service

By: Ruby Maddox

iStock_000016473597_SmallAdvocating for volunteerism and community service is a huge passion of mine. (If you haven’t noticed already.) The rewards are endless and its had a huge impact my life, both as a recipient and a giver.
Maybe you’ve always wanted to be involved your community but didn’t know how. Perhaps you thought you needed some kind of previous experience or needed to belong to a group of some kind in order to participate in a community service activity. While this may be true of some opportunities, this isn’t always the case.

I write a lot about tips for community-based organizations. You’ll notice I’ll often point out the impact volunteers make on any CBO with limited resources. This post is dedicated to all you would-be volunteers out there, just itching to get out there and make a difference!

First,
Why would you want to volunteer?
(I thought you’d never ask…)

  • Volunteering can literally be one of the best ways to learn about and become part of a community. Not only can you learn about the work of the organization, you can also get a better idea of the issue(s) facing that community as well as those who benefit from the organization’s goods or services.
  • Volunteering can also be an excellent professional development tool; teaching soft skills like communication, self-confidence, acting as a team player and problem solving as well as hard skills like public speaking, software proficiency, or logistics planning.
  • Volunteering can help you become a  better advocate for causes that you’re passionate about. Care about building healthy communities? Volunteer at a community garden. Concerned about urban poverty and social welfare? Volunteer at a soup kitchen or community resource center. Want to know more about public policy? Volunteer at a community action organization working on “getting out the vote” or grassroots organizing.

There are no shortage of opportunities available to get involved in your community.

Where to start?
Think about what it is you have to offer. What skills do you already possess? Perhaps you’re in need of an opportunity that doesn’t require extensive experience, certifications, or skills (we all have to start somewhere).  Next, think about the kind of organization you would like to volunteer with. Are you looking for something outdoors? Or would you prefer something at a desk?  Do you need more or less structure? Is your specialty working with seniors or youth? (Keep in mind some positions will require a background check to work with certain demographics.) Lastly, think about how much time you are able to commit and be realistic. It’s better to under commit than over commit. There are volunteer opportunities that range from one-time or event-based needs to more on-going positions.

Volunteer search feature on Idealist.com
Volunteer search feature on Idealist.com

Organizations like Volunteermatch, Idealist, and Volunteen Nation maintain huge databases of opportunities with search tools that make it easy for you to find a great match.  Even your local United Way may have a listing of community-based organizations in need of volunteers and suitable for your skills and time-frame.

Still the D.I.Y. approach can also work, as some organizations may not be listed on any database for various reasons. In this case you can simply find an organization you’d like to volunteer with and inquire as to whether they’re looking for volunteers. (You’ll rarely hear no.) Be clear about what it is you have to offer and the the time you have available. It may be helpful to have all of this information handy on a sheet of paper that you can leave with the organization, along with your contact information.

Remember…
Be sure to listen carefully to what the organization’s needs are as well. Just because you’re offering “free labor” it doesn’t mean it’s the kind of help the organization may need at that time.  There may be other indirect ways you can help.  Be respectful and professional. Even though you aren’t being “paid” to do the job it doesn’t mean you should be any less respectful of the organization’s policies and environment.

Not all opportunities go smoothly the first (or second or third) time around. Your chosen organization may not have everything perfectly laid out for you or may take some time working you into the routine. (If they were perfect they probably wouldn’t need you.) Don’t get discouraged. While not every opportunity ends up being a good fit, you may find that others just need a bit more patience.
Remember why you are there and be prepared to serve.

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