The Six Elements of a Fulfilling Volunteering Experience

By Sandy Wiegand, Copyeditor and Writer for Joining Vision and Action

To mark National Volunteer Week, I’ve been talking to my colleagues about the whys and hows of their experiences volunteering with nonprofits.

Earlier this week, I shared their stories about what they gain from volunteering. Today, I’ll share their responses to two last, interconnected questions: How did you find a role and an organization that’s a good fit? And how do you stay motivated and make the experience feel rewarding?

1. Choose a cause you feel passionate about

When it comes to both finding a good fit and staying motivated, my co-workers agree that what’s most important is to connect with something you care about.

For example, Jill tutors an elementary student every week with Tutoring Chicago, and she’s on the advocacy council for Women Employed, which works to increase opportunities for working women. She explains: “I care about education and women and the ability for families to have equitable opportunities regardless of background or identity. So that’s why they’re a good fit.”

Nora makes a similar point: “Volunteer for something that matters to you! If you don’t like, or you kinda-sorta or almost really like what you do, it just doesn’t have the same magic it would if you offered your time for something that truly speaks to—or breaks—your heart.

Choosing an organization arbitrarily can lead to burnout, Katherine notes. “If it’s not enjoyable or I’m not passionate about it, volunteering will become a chore,” she says. “It’s OK to want to get something in return!”

The passion you feel for a cause might stem in part from a group’s connection to your own experience, or a connection to people you care about. For example, Erin volunteers at the garden at her children’s school. “Connecting kids to the natural world and teaching them about growing food, etc. is a value I hold deeply. It’s rewarding to take a passion of mine, gardening, and connect it with my own kids’ school,” she says.  

Lisa’s connection comes from turning a bad experience into something positive. She became a board member for the Colorado Riders Club after she was hit by a car while cycling alone. “So riding safely was a major motivator for me to find a group of people to ride with regularly,” she shares. “Spending time with caring people (and endorphins) kept me motivated to serve.”

2. Work with people you like/Like the people you work with

On that note, it helps if you know and like the people at the organization where you plan to volunteer, too. Sandra, who has volunteered with her church, a youth cultural center, schools and Head Start, says good fits for her were with places “that I had some previous connection with through my family, the work that they do, or a person I knew in the organization.” She also advises, “Build relationships with the leaders of the organization and the other volunteers.”

Rolfe agrees: “I look for causes I care about, where there are people I’d like to work with, where my help can make a difference.”

Silvia hopes to get involved with Intercambio, which works to improve immigrant lives through English language education. She notes that meeting new people motivates her. “Having the opportunity to meet interesting people who truly want to help the people they serve and have similar beliefs to yours, as well as growing your own network, are great incentives,” she says.

3. Look into how the organization manages volunteers

Adam suggests testing out a few organizations before making a longer commitment. Find ones that don’t just have a compelling mission, but also a solid internal structure for managing volunteers and incorporating feedback.”

Elise, who is interning with JVA’s evaluation team, has volunteered with myriad organizations, focusing on interests from gardening and environmentalism to women’s rights advocacy and children’s education. She says that her efforts to really understand organizations’ values have led her to “having honest conversations about expectations for the volunteer role, as well as some good trial and error too, and a commitment to open communication.”

4. Choose work you enjoy and are suited to

Choosing the right type of work, it turns out, means different things to different people. Some of my co-workers emphasized focusing on what you’re good at. For example, Nora suggested: “If your Facebook page is total crickets, don’t sign up to run a social media campaign. … If you dig graphic design (like I do), then offer to update the organization’s thank-you cards.”

Sarah agrees: “Volunteer for a cause you feel very passionate about AND where you feel like your skills/strengths would be most put to good use.”

But Rolfe just tries to figure out where he’s needed. “I used to want to make sure it took advantage of my skills; now I just look for opportunities where I can be useful,” he says. “I used to be strategic: What can I get out of this? Now I look for what work needs to be done, even if that means moving chairs or knocking on doors.”

Elise says variety helps her stay motivated. “It’s been important for me to make sure the volunteer role offered a different set of experiences and skill sets than whatever my primary responsibilities were at that time, be it a student or a full-time worker,” she explains. For example, if her day-to-day work doesn’t include much physical exertion, she might volunteer for trail maintenance in the mountains.

5. Be realistic about your time constraints

As with most things in life, it’s important to know your boundaries when it comes to volunteering.

“Determine your personal or organizational time limit (i.e., board term limits or volunteer time commitments),” Sandra says. “Reassess your commitment after the determined time limit.”

“Don’t say yes to volunteer commitments you can’t follow through with,” Adam advises.

With a young family and a career, Erin takes advantage of the volunteering opportunities that easily fit into her schedule, noting, “I have to go to my kids’ school every day anyway!”

For busy people, Elise suggests signing up for one-day commitments, such as helping Habitat for Humanity build a house or restoring the natural environment with Wildlands Restoration Volunteers.

6. Do something that lets you see the difference you make

Finally, every volunteer wants to see evidence of the good they’re doing.

Erin sums up the sentiment: It’s good to feel needed, to see that your help makes a difference.”    

Although Jill’s main volunteering activities are recurring commitments, she also has found that occasionally helping with events, fundraising and phoning representatives can be motivating. “It’s finding other ways to connect with the organization and move the mission forward,” she says.

In Sarah’s experience, long-term volunteer opportunities can be more rewarding than short-term ones, “because then I get to see the impact over time.”

How have you found a volunteer position that’s a good fit? And how do you stay motivated to stick with it? JVA would love to know your secrets!

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