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How can I volunteer?

People can get involved in the community in a range of ways, through diverse...

To help you explore these various options for volunteering, we offer the following formula:

Your ideal volunteer opportunity =
Role + time commitment + structure + issue

(Check out a discussion about why assessing your interests is crucial to finding a good volunteer opportunity.)

Activities and roles

A volunteer's activity/role can involve any one or more of the following:

  • Hands-on: activities where almost anyone can show up and, with minimal training, get started (taking tickets, cleaning up parks, planting trees)
  • Skilled: tasks that depend on a volunteer's particular skill set or experience (using graphic design skills to help an organization redesign brochures, building or maintaining a nonprofit's website, providing legal advice for an immigration support agency)
  • Direct service: volunteering on the front lines of the organization and likely having direct contact with the population served (delivering meals, packing food bank boxes)
  • Advisory: serving in a more behind-the-scenes role to help build an organization's capacity to reach their mission (providing feedback on strategic or fundraising plans, helping organizations learn more about using social networking sites and tools, serving on a committee or board whose role is largely oversight and governance)
  • Online: completing projects that you can do from anywhere in the world as long as you have email or internet access (translating materials, blogging, developing websites, advising on strategic plans)

Action steps

  • Think about what kinds of activities you really enjoy or have always wanted to try.
  • Do a skills assessment to see how you might be able to lend your personal and professional expertise to an organization, issue, or cause.
  • Think about where you want to get involved—behind the scenes, on the front lines, online.
  • Don't forget to consider what you would like to gain from this experience—and what kinds of activities are likely to help you reach your own personal or professional goals.

Time commitment

  • Impromptu: a volunteer project that is created and implemented on the fly (see DIY/independent/entrepreneurial in the Structure section below)
  • One-time: projects or events that take place only on a certain date and/or are not ongoing opportunities to get involved (setting up stages at a community festival, handing out water to marathon runners)
  • Episodic: serving as an occasional volunteer on ongoing projects that are open to whomever can sign up on any given date/time (serving meals at a homeless shelter, cleaning up hiking trails)
  • Ongoing: committing to being a volunteer for a predetermined or otherwise agreed upon period of time (mentoring a young person, serving as a volunteer counselor on an emergency helpline, answering phones for scheduled periods of time each week, serving on a nonprofit organization's board of directors)

Action steps

  • Take a look at your schedule and see how much time you can—and want—to reasonably commit. It's best to be honest and realistic here to ensure you'll find the right fit for both you and the place where you'll be volunteering. For example, if your schedule is already pretty busy, consider whether you'll be able to commit to an ongoing schedule or if something more episodic might be a better fit. This will help you avoid having to bail on your responsibilities—leaving the organization scrambling to fill your place—should you have to drop out.
  • Think about your interest in longevity: are you looking for a place where you can volunteer over a significant period of time? A place where you can volunteer only during a seasonal break, vacation, or holiday? Would you prefer to try something out without the pressure to return and volunteer again? Keep in mind that some types of volunteering—mentoring a child, volunteer search and rescue, answering calls at a domestic violence hotline—may require a significant time commitment due to the amount of training invested and/or the sensitivity of the project.

Project structure

  • Traditional: projects or volunteer roles that you take on under the guidance of and in support of the mission of a nonprofit or government organization (food banks, animal shelters, public health clinics)
  • DIY/independent/entrepreneurial: projects or roles that you create yourself, either because you can't find a volunteer opportunity that fits your interests and availability or because no organization appears to be addressing that particular cause or issue
  • Service learning: volunteering as part of or in connection with education or learning (completing volunteer hours for graduation, measuring toxin levels in local watersheds as part of a course on ecosystems)

Action steps:

  • Think about where you do your best work. Is it as a member of a team or working independently? Do you prefer to create your own project, develop new activities for reaching an established goal, or join a work in progress? Having a better idea of how you like to work will help you identify the ideal structure for you.
  • Need to know more about what volunteering independently or through your school might look like? Check out our sections on "DIY volunteering" and "Student volunteers".

Issue or cause

Issues are matters of public concern that you are passionate about — from animal rights to environmental conservation, education to health and well-being, affordable housing to ending hunger, women's empowerment to arts and culture.

Action steps:

  • Start keeping track of which news stories you read. What kinds of headlines grab your attention? Which stories do you take time to read all the way through? What blogs, news sites, or Twitter feeds do you follow? Are there any particular social or environmental topics that you've stumbled across that inspired you to seek more information? What discussions would you gravitate towards if you heard people talking about issues at a party? Spend some time thinking about your answers to these questions; you might be surprised to see a pattern emerge based on what info you're reading, following, or seeking out.
  • Ask your friends and family what they care about. We often surround ourselves with like-minded people and it's possible that they might name something that resonates with you too.

Other considerations

You may want to consider additional factors based on your:

  • access to transportation or the internet
  • your range of abilities
  • age (see sections in this resource center specifically for youth and older volunteers)
  • location (especially if you live in a remote, rural area or are considering volunteering abroad).