Over the last 20 years, fewer and fewer people in the U.S. have donated their time through volunteering with nonprofits.
While it’s not the only way to give back to your community, volunteering through nonprofit organizations is a powerful way to make a difference. Nonprofits support many of our society’s most vulnerable people. They nurture art, expression and sports. They can conduct scientific research and care for our natural spaces. The possibilities are many, though it may take some looking.
Tim Delaney, president and CEO of the National Council of Nonprofits, calls nonprofits the “invisible sector,” one that is both everywhere and often never seen.
Here are some things to expect as you look for a volunteer opportunity that is a good fit for you and some steps you can take to succeed:
The first step in finding an organization to support with your time is to assess your goals, your skills and your passions. Are you seeking to find new friends, learn something new or make a change in a specific area?
“The first thing an individual needs to do is for their own fulfillment, as well as their ability to help the nonprofit meet its mission, is to understand what that individual’s passion points are,” said Delaney.
He urged people to think broadly about their skills and interests.
“A lot of people imagine over the years stuffing envelopes,” Delaney said. “Well, sometimes, that happens. But that’s not what most volunteers are doing.”
DEFINE YOUR AVAILABILITY
The second step is to consider when you’re available and for how much time.
Many nonprofits are facing a confluence of challenges, including diminishing budgets, inflation, high fuel costs and a workforce shortage. Some will have volunteer opportunities only during working hours because that’s what their staff can handle. Others may be more fluid but have a mountain of work to assign.
Be clear with yourself and the organization about how much time you can commit and what you want to be doing in that time.
“An organization that has a one size fits all model, it’s probably not going to be best,” said Karmit Bulman who leads that Minnesota Alliance for Volunteer Advancement. “You want an organization that’s going to utilize you, your skills, your talents well.”
HOW TO FIND OPPORTUNITIES
The act and process of searching for volunteers is one of the biggest barriers for people to get started, said Rian Satterwhite, who director the Office of Service Learning and Leadership at University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
Often, a large organization like the local United Way will have information about potential volunteer spots. Organizations like VolunteerMatch and state-run volunteer centers may also run online dashboards that aggregate opportunities.
But many local nonprofits are run entirely by volunteers and may not have the bandwidth to post new volunteer shifts on different websites. So read their websites or social media posts and then reach out directly to ask if your skills and availability are a good fit. Follow up if needed and be patient.
The process of searching is part of the journey of deepening your connection with your community.
When you do find an opportunity that interests you, sign up and make a plan for how it will fit into your schedule. Consider telling a friend or family member as a way to hold yourself accountable for actually going.
“It takes a bit of a leap of faith to kind of show up for that first time in an unfamiliar space,” Satterwhite said. “I think that nine times out of ten people are going to have a really good experience and choose to come back.”
EXPECT A PROCESS, BUT LOOK FOR EFFICIENCY
If the nonprofit serves a vulnerable population, including children, survivors of violence or those with serious health issues, they will likely ask volunteers to complete a background check. Other organizations will require training and may send you material to read in advance.
This due diligence is meant to protect their clients but can become an impediment to volunteer recruitment, which is one reason why Bulman encourages nonprofits to consider carefully how they recruit and train volunteers.
“If you set up systems like a long application process, a very intensive orientation, a lot of interviews, an intense background check, you aren’t going to get as wide a range of volunteers as if you make the process as simple and efficient as possible,” she said.
Consider if the nonprofit has made volunteer recruitment a priority by hiring or appointing a volunteer manager, developing inclusive policies and having formalized ways to engage the community they serve as partners.
Organizations that are successful in recruiting and retaining volunteers have looked to bring in people who are among the communities they serve, Bulman said.
“If we continue to nurture systems where there’s a structure of the ‘haves’ volunteer for the ‘have nots,’ we’re going to continue to have volunteer shortages,” she said.
KEEP AN OPEN MIND
Even though we’ve been talking about “finding” a volunteer opportunity, nonprofit professionals say the best way to recruit new volunteers is through current volunteers. So, if a friend or family member invites you to participate, go! Or better yet, ask around to see if someone you know is already involved with an organization that they would recommend.
And if you’re hoping to connect a loved one with a volunteer opportunity, use the power of that invitation to your advantage: Sign yourself and your loved one up to go together.
The big takeaway is that identifying and connecting with volunteering opportunities will put you in contact with the people around you and that is one major benefits of nonprofits that Delaney and others point to.
“Nonprofits are really where Americans learn about democracy, in that people come together in their local communities to help in some way, and they learn about community issues beyond whatever brought them together to work on that particular nonprofits mission,” he said. “They get on a committee. They get on a board. They learn about conflict resolution. They learn about compromise. They learn about all these skill sets that we need in democracy.”
Besides all that, Delaney said, it can be fun.
“You will find so much fulfillment by sharing your grace and your skills and your knowledge with others in your community to make it stronger,” he said. “We’re all in this life together. And you have certain abilities that nobody else has. And we need you.”
Associated Press coverage of philanthropy and nonprofits receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content. For all of AP’s philanthropy coverage, visit https://apnews.com/hub/philanthropy.