So you want to volunteer? Some advice to get you started…

The NVCO published its ‘Civil Society Almanac’ at the end of 2012. It contains information and statistics about charities, social enterprises and voluntary organisations and examines trends in the world of volunteering. The data was gathered over 2009-2010.

One of the things which immediately jumps out of the Almanac is a summary about why people volunteer. There is a lot of talk in the field of volunteering about promoting the benefits of volunteering – getting the message across to any potential volunteers that there are skills to be gained and rewards to be had from giving your time to others. Of course, it is important that anyone thinking of volunteering is given full information about the impact that giving their time will have on their life – both positive and negative, but it is very interesting that when answering the question about why they volunteer the top answer – 62% of respondents – was simply “I wanted to improve things/help people.”

Whilst this is a great starting point, as a Volunteer Manager, I believe it’s just as important to find the right volunteering role for you as it is to find the right job, and I give the same advice to potential volunteers as I would to anyone seeking a new job or career.

Volunteering is a big decision which can have a major impact both on your life, and for the charity you support. It can be hugely fulfilling, or it can all fizzle out without really going anywhere. If you want to make a difference, then it’s important to find the right opportunity that will be rewarding both for yourself and the charity you want to support.

I’ve put together a checklist below of things you might want to consider if you’re thinking of volunteering, whether at Friendship Works, or at another charitable organisation. It should help you to think about what you want to do, and how exactly you want to make a difference.

Thinking it through: some things to consider before volunteering

What are your existing skills, experience and interests?

Lots of people think they’d ‘like to help’ but then get stuck knowing what to do, and forget that they’ve got a host of fantastic skills that they use at work and home already that they can offer. For example, if you’re a web designer, see if you can find an organisation that wants help to build a new website. If you’re experienced with animals, what about volunteering as a dog-walker? If you’re great at getting people involved, what about working at a festival? If you’re friendly and a good listener with bags of empathy who likes having fun, then perhaps even mentoring at Friendship Works could be for you!

What skills and experience you want to develop?

Is there an area you’d really like to develop your skills or experience new things? Quite a lot of our mentors say that one of the benefits of their volunteering role is the opportunity to see life from a new perspective, that of a young person, and to experience things that they wouldn’t normally get to do as an adult. They also appreciate the chance to get back in touch with what it’s like to be a young person, and understand what it’s like for young people in today’s world. It helps them to develop their listening skills, their ability to empathise, as well as enhancing their organisational skills. If you think first about what skills you can offer, but then consider also what you’d like to develop or learn, then you’ll be more likely to find something that is mutually rewarding for both you and the charity you will be supporting.

Have you thought about the sort of organisation you’d like to volunteer for?

Do you think you’d prefer volunteering for a large organisation with lots of other volunteers, and where they have teams to manage the volunteer network and provide training and support? Or would you get on better with a small organisation or project where you would see the same people regularly, and possibly have a chance to feel closer to what the charity is doing?

What sort of cause appeals to you?

Local, national or international? Something with children, adults or an animal-related charity? What do you care about, and what inspires you to want to volunteer? It’s important to volunteer for something you really believe in, because if you’re doing regular volunteering in your free time, there will most likely be some mornings you get up and don’t much feel like it. On these mornings, you’ll need something you care about to keep you motivated!

Have you thought about the nature of the role you’d like?

Do you want to get out and about, or be based in one place? For instance, do you want something working directly with the people or animals helped by the charity. Or would you prefer to do something based at their offices? All too often people think that volunteering means delivering direct services in the community, but a charity can equally benefit from volunteers who help with the post, update their website, design a leaflet, or even give advice on IT, finance or legal issues (depending on your skills of course).

How long do you want to volunteer for?

Have you got some time on your hands and want to do something full time and short term, like working on a community project to build a playground? Or is it important for you to feel really involved over a period of time, which will allow you to build more of a relationship with your chosen charity and cause? If so, are you able to make the commitment to sign up and see it through? If you already have a lot of commitments and you’re expecting changes in your life coming up, would you be better off with something on a more casual or one-off basis, where you’re not tied down to making a promise to volunteer for a specific length of time?

When do you want to volunteer, and how often?

Be realistic about when you can make time for your volunteering. It has to be practical if you’re going to sustain your commitment. Have you got free time to help out in the week? Or do you want something you can do at weekends or in the evenings? In fact, can you make time every week, or is once a month better? Be clear about how much of your time you can devote to volunteering, otherwise you may end up feeling disappointed if you can’t keep it up.

Hopefully that should help to start you on the process of thinking through what you might want to do. Volunteering is a great opportunity to meet people, develop your skills, give something back, and get loads out of it at the same time. But only if you think it through first!