Many of us are seeking a fulfilling way to give of ourselves. Having formerly served as a Director of Volunteer Services with the American Red Cross, I thought it might be helpful to provide a few ideas, insights, and recommendations on how to volunteer without feeling stretched too thin or frustrated that the experience wasn't what you thought it would be.
First, a few quick things to think about:
1) Identify the mission: This may sound silly, but are you excited about the mission of the organization you're about to volunteer for? I had many people come to the Red Cross because they simply wanted to volunteer and they associated volunteering with the Red Cross. But our mission didn't "speak" to them - inventorying shelter supplies for four hours is a lot more fulfilling if you know someone who lost their home to a fire and have seen the value in providing immediate shelter to a family.
2) Consider your personality: If you talk on the phone all day at work, making solicitation calls isn't likely to be an enjoyable evening even if you do believe in the mission. You don't have to torture yourself, there are many volunteer opportunities out there. Find one that suits your personality and skill set. Websites like www.volunteermatch.org or www.idealist.org have nice "matching" capabilities that can help you find something you love. Also, many United Ways have volunteer listings. And larger cities have volunteer centers, sometimes through the city website.
3) Consider a long-term opportunity: Non-profits are inundated by requests for one-time activities in November and December. I was often desperately searching for First Aid instructors who could teach a few times per year, but had 200 people who wanted to do "something" for two hours in December. Perhaps you could find something you are really excited about and use these months to get the training or orientation you need. Volunteer organizations will love you! And you can find an ongoing way to give that will stretch your horizons.
4) Consider how much time you really have: I used to meet with prospective volunteers every day who had a lot of great spirit and intentions, but they hadn't deeply thought about all the other obligations they were juggling. I had to really work with them to discover the answer to the seemingly simple question â€“ Where does the American Red Cross fall in terms of your priorities? If we're not in the top five, you probably have too many other responsibilities. And that's perfectly okay. Your family, your job, your church, they may take a higher priority â€“ at least at the present time. You can give of yourself in all these areas without adding another obligation on top that is supposed to be your "way to give."
Second, a few thoughts from the other side of the fence, from the perspective of the organization:
1) It's not you...: Many non-profits don't have the infrastructure to support the major influx of new volunteers in the holiday season. Don't get frustrated if you don't hear back, or feel like they are pushing you away. If you are sincerely interested in their mission, follow up in January. Be polite, but persistent. Often there isn't a single person responsible for volunteers and messages may get lost in the shuffle, especially in the busy holiday season. Or, the organization truly doesn't have any opportunities that can be done in one-time shots.
2) We don't think you're a criminal: Don't be put off by training requirements or background checks. Our litigious society has put a few roadblocks up, but they are meant to keep vulnerable populations safe.
3) Call if you can't make it: If you have to cancel, treat the volunteer opportunity like a paid job. Call in. It is greatly appreciated and helps struggling non-profits stay organized and appear competent to its clients.
Lastly, I just wanted to say: There are many ways to give of yourself without volunteering in a formal way through your local non-profit or faith community - and these are just as valid. I always encouraged my volunteers to think of themselves first - you can't do anyone any good if you are neglecting yourself.