My hometown of Frederick, Md., is a special community. Not only is it a vibrant mix of culture and history, it’s also filled with some of the most generous and kind souls I’ve ever encountered. It’s a community that thrives due in large part to the caring individuals who donate their time, talents and treasures to their favorite causes.
I’ve had the pleasure of volunteering in a number of different roles: planning events, leading cub scout dens, participating as a working not-for-profit board member, assisting youth soccer, and writing public relations materials for organizations I admire. Some might call me a bit of volunteer junkie, in fact. (They’re probably right.)
And while I hope that I’ve made a valuable difference in all of those organizations over the years, I don’t feel as though I’ve been the epitome of “effective and amazing” at every single one. I’m an over-committer and I like to help people.
What it comes down to is this: I’ve said yes way more times than I should have.
I’ve come to realize that while volunteering feeds my soul, I do need to be smart about it in order to be my most effective. These days I am way less willing to say yes without some serious soul searching first.
I’ve seen some of my friends and colleagues experience similar situations. So, to pay it forward, I’ve put together a few questions and points to consider before accepting your next (or first) volunteer opportunity.
3 Questions To Ask Yourself Before Taking On A Volunteer Role
1. Is this organization aligned with my life? Does it truly interest me?
Most people think volunteers just need to show up for duty, and that it’s wrong to think about your own personal interests. Au contraire! It’s not selfish at all to look for volunteer opportunities that line up with your personality.
In fact, I think it’s better if you volunteer in an area that interests you because it means you’ll be productive and passionate. Even if you don’t plan to volunteer on a regular basis, finding work—and a cause—you enjoy will mean the organization benefits from having a willing AND engaged volunteer.
2. Can I commit to what’s being required of me? How will this impact my home and family life?
Depending on the organization or individual you’ll be volunteering with, you may have the option of choosing how long you’d like your volunteer work to last. Get a clear vision on what’s expected of you. Is it for a short period of time (a committee for a single event) or is it for multiple months or years (a board position)? Some assignments are more flexible than others so be sure you know what your commitment means.
If you’re already stretched thin and worried about whether a volunteer position will make it hard for you to keep up with your job, family, and other existing commitments, you may need to reconsider the opportunity. This is okay.
Be realistic and be honest with yourself about how much time you can commit. You can’t do everything, so figure out what’s most important to you and give that 100% of your effort. I speak from experience. Trust me—it may be hard to say, “No,” when an offer’s extended, but it’s damn near excruciating to know that you’ve left people in the lurch if you find you need to pull back mid-commitment.
3. Are there any unspoken or additional expectations?
The more seasoned I’ve become the more I understand the unstated expectations of volunteering for an organization or a cause. I remember once I was asked to sell tickets for a magic show in town to friends and family. I was a bit late to the game and discovered that everyone in my circle of influence was going, but had already purchased the tickets.
No big deal, I thought. At least I gave it a good try, right?
I later learned that when I returned the unsold tickets, the organization was devastated and it was assumed (but never mentioned) that I would sell them or purchase them myself to donate to the charity. Oops! I completely missed that very important unspoken expectation and it left me with some major cleaning up to do.
Does your charity have a huge gala, signature event, or training requirements? If so, your presence may be required as an attendee. There are also volunteer positions that may need you to pay for some costs out-of-pocket, like transportation expenses, for example.
You may get reimbursed for expenses associated with your volunteer job, or you may need to write them off at the end of the year. Either way, know that it’s a possibility so you’re not caught off-guard. Also, keep tabs on what you spend; in addition to write-offs, you may be eligible for other tax breaks come tax season.
Annual appeals are also a huge part of charity work. If you sit on a board of directors there will typically be an expectation of giving at some level. It’s important for nonprofit boards to show 100% participation from their board members, even if it’s only $20 per person (though many require larger contributions from their board members). The point here is to know from the beginning all the ways you may be expected to be of service, whether it’s time or money.
Are You Ready?
Keeping these three questions in mind before jumping on board in a volunteer capacity should save you time and frustration. The organization you choose will benefit from your passion and you will love the experience!