Cultivating bonds and connecting with people and communities can be a deeply rewarding experience. And this can often be doing by giving back to the community either directly or through advocacy or even in a business sector. Even if we only have a few minutes, an hour or a handful of pocket change, chances are we can do a small part in investing in others. It might be reaching out by sending an email or collecting goods for a donation.
Assisting others either through a formal or informal charity can be invaluable. And since time and energy are so valuable, you want to make sure that your experience is rewarding.
Here are 20 things to keep these things in mind when you volunteer:
1. Know That Everyone is There for Different Reasons.
Each of us value different things in a volunteer experience and are participating for a different reason. Be mindful that you may meet another volunteer that is there for a completely different purpose from your intent.
2. Prepare Before You Volunteer.
Check out if there is any pre-training, which can include phone conferences that are required before the event. This is part of your time.
3. Set Clear Boundaries.
When you agreed to sign up for the group, you open the door to more communication, rather it is or is not encouraged. This means that you will be asked to do more than you planned. Knowing this ahead of time gives you the opportunity to think about what you can fit into your scheduled.
4. Become Aware of Your Inner-Connection to the Charity.
If you are drawn to a particular cause because you have a deep connection to it, then it might be difficult to say “no.” For example, both my late husband and father died from cancer. I’m often asked to give both time and money to cancer related charities. It is impossible for me to say “yes” to every request. In the beginning, I felt anxious saying “no” because of my deeper connection to cancer, but I realized that I can’t do everything.
5. Don’t be Afraid to Say No.
Remind yourself that it is okay to say “no” and you don’t feel compelled to provide a deep reason. You don’t have unlimited resources. We all have the same number of hours in a day.
6. You do Not Have to Give Financially.
Your time is currency and it is valuable, so don’t feel compelled to give both money and time. You could be using your time in another way but you chose this charity.
7. You Can’t Do it All.
You may be asked to take on additional responsibilities which simply don’t fit into your schedule. Knowing this ahead of time will help you prepare for the moment when you are asked to do more.
8. Remember Why you Volunteered in the First Place.
It is easy to get drawn into other charity related drama that surrounds the cause. This can quickly become overwhelming and a time drain. Be cautious of getting pulled into circles of chaos.
9. Avoid Toxic Charities
There are some “toxic” charities and they do not follow good standards of practice. Check the Charity Navigator to see if your cause is listed here.
10. Yes, it is Still About the Dollars.
You can only do so much with kind smiles and chances are the charity still needs goods and services to implement their goals. And with this implementation process comes money. There is just the way most non- profits still operate. They rely on generous donations.
11. Do Your Research
Do check out the organization’s websites and social media pages. Many times, photos of past events are shared and you can get an idea of the event.
12. Know Your Audience.
It can be difficult to measure success if you are not able to contact the actual participants who will be receiving your dollars or time. For example, you might be donating time to make food baskets but may never meet the families who will be picking them up. You may feel as if you did a lot of work but don’t know if you are making an actual impact. You may never run into the family who you are helping in person.
13. Be Realistic.
You might need to adjust your goals. Initially, you bit off more than you could chew and realize that you can’t possibly do everything. It is okay to re-calibrate.
14. Don’t Be Afraid to Speak Up.
Sometimes the people who are participating alongside you are not carrying out the goals of the organization. If you feel that you are being asked to do more or something that is not in alignment with what you initially read or were told, just ask the leader to clarify things.
15. Don’t Let Negativity Bring You Down.
You may meet someone who is just plain bitter and brings negativity to the volunteer experience. Don’t let the chip on their shoulder fall into your path. Just focus on the reason you are there.
16. Decide What You Want.
Ask yourself “What result are you looking for with this volunteer opportunity?” If you want a certain type of experience, then you may need to find a different organization.
17. Don’t Panic.
Depending on your inner- connection with the charity, you may overhear certain conversations or be put into certain situations where it stirs up a painful memory. Separating yourself from the situation for even a few moments can help calm your anxiety. If it is too overwhelming then separating yourself completely might be necessary. You can give back in other ways.
18. Consider Travel Time.
Your charity may have meetings in one location but the volunteer venue could be an hour away. Many volunteers consider their travel time as volunteer time. Check this out ahead of time to make sure you are not over-committing yourself.
19. You Could get your Feelings Hurt.
When I was in a Master in Social Work program, I spent several days volunteering at a non- profit organization. I was prompt, always appeared for my shift and even went out of my way to collect additional donations for a holiday event. Then, to my surprise, I was overlooked when the holiday appreciation dinner was held for all of the volunteers. I didn’t know about the event until after it occurred. Another volunteer told me that she was also “snubbed” and wanted to quit but she needed the hours for her internship.
20. Not all Branches of the Tree are the Same.
Many big charities have individual branches depending on location and need. So you may hear fabulous stories about a particular charity from a volunteer in one location and you go to your local group and it is a disaster.
Growing and sustaining a non- profit charitable organization can be complex. Many times volunteers are not aware of the steps that went into creating it. Coming to the experience will be more positive when you understand what works for you and are clear about your own intent.
Kristin Meekhof is a licensed master’s level social worker, speaker and author of the book, “A Widow’s Guide to Healing”. She also volunteers her time with a few health related charities.