How To Find Good Volunteer Roles
Volunteering is underrated, but also misunderstood:
Underrated in that it can become one of the highlights of your week, a good mix of satisfactions and career development.
Misunderstood because it’s easy to end up feeling disenchanted or undervalued.
I’d say there are three potential benefits that come from volunteering, and by identifying what you’re after, you’re more likely to design a win-win arrangement.
CV Building – doing work that enables you to get a paid position in the future.
Career Direction – discovering the elements that make up your dream job.
Impact and Satisfaction – the feeling you get from making a difference, and from seeing the benefits of your hard work.
For a volunteer role to be a good fit, these have to be suitably lucrative for you and whoever you’re working with.
Here are some ways to ensure you find the right match.
Know the different types of role you can request
It’s one thing to know the cause you’re passionate about, but it’s another to know what type of position to apply for.
You could volunteer to perform a task for an organisation/person who does good work, for a fixed amount of time and doing something that you find gratifying.
This might be running a fundraiser, improving the business, or assisting with an event, and can be like an altruistic hobby.
You could take up a volunteer role that turns into a paid part-time position, e.g. admin, data entry, customer service, event coordination.
This is often unremarkable work that helps a good organisation, and might be better than your current part time job.
You could take up an internship in your holidays, as a short term contract (paid or unpaid).
This might involve a mix of interesting work and dull admin/waiting around, and can look good on your resume.
You could shadow someone who does interesting work, to understand first-hand what their job is like and to learn the ropes.
This is generally unpaid but it cuts to the chase, no extra chores or filler tasks.
Where people run into trouble is when they pick the wrong structure for the situation.
For example, if you’re hoping to get a part time job out of the deal, you’ll probably miss the more interesting parts of the work.
Vice versa, you can shadow someone interesting, but will need to add something useful to the room if it’s not temporary.
I used to take on a lot of uni students who wanted to shadow our team members.
It was a good deal for them too, there was no pay but they weren’t really doing much for the business.
It was essentially a free insight into the accelerator program and our teaching.
Occasionally they’d get to help with higher level work, and we ended up offering half of them consulting roles, but they were never picking up anyone’s dry cleaning.
That is, until one of them accepted a position as the new temporary admin person.
She was able to ditch her hospitality job, but could no longer attend the accelerator – it clashed with her new paid duties.
Sure enough, despite the improved part time work, the deal lost its charm.
Have a think about skilled versus unskilled roles
When most people think about volunteering, they picture unskilled work, like picking up litter or painting fences.
These can be cathartic, but aren’t of tremendous value to the cause.
e.g. if the work you’re doing is worth $15 per hour, then that’s the equivalent donation you’re giving each week/month.
Skilled work on the other hand is when you offer your professional expertise, like photography, content creation, grant writing, SEO optimisation, accounting, taking a board role or training their team.
This is definitely not cathartic (it feels like you’re still at work), but it’s highly valuable to the underlying cause.
e.g. if you can massively improve their marketing, imagine how much more influential they can be.
We’ve looked before at lucrative part time roles, such as skills that can be worth $100 an hour.
Volunteering is gold because it allows you to build those skills up, even before you’re a genuine professional, and because you donating your Saturday might be worth $1,000 to a good cause.
If you’re young, you probably won’t find a great role on a traditional job site
I mean, you might, but I don’t hear about it too often.
That’s because the most important part of the arrangement is chemistry.
You have to be excited about the role, and they have to be excited about you.
If the interest is only one-way, it won’t work out.
The great roles will get a million applicants, so if you’re inexperienced then your odds are slim.
Instead, I’d look for a real person who you can get a read on.
You want to gauge whether or not they’d be good to work with, and they need to get a gauge on you.
These are people who would pick a young person, but might see you and your strengths and invent a win-win opportunity.
It can even be a co-creation – you ask them about what they need, you tell them about the kinds of thing you can offer, and see what comes up.
You’re valuable, but you’re not free
There’s a cost attached to your “free” labour.
Maybe not in the form of a wage, but it costs the business in terms of insurance, management, time, energy and distraction.
For this reason, having someone offer their services for free isn’t an attractive proposition until you know what they can offer.
Talking in person is the best way to do this, especially if you can provide examples of your previous work.
The fact that you’re being paid $0 isn’t enticing enough, you want to show how this is a win for both parties.
It also removes the potential guilt that comes from taking on an unpaid person – they want to know that you’re getting a good deal too.
I’d suggest telling them upfront what you hope to get from the deal, especially the things that are of little hassle to them (e.g. CV building, skill development, shadowing, referees for future job applications, personal connection to the cause).
An initial time box helps everyone
Our brains tend to perceive an unknown level of risk as a high level of risk.
If you show up as “a volunteer” without any extra information, it’s easy for you to look like an obligation.
This can be resolved by setting a clear timeframe around the engagement, so that everyone knows when it “ends” and nobody feels like they’re on the hook indefinitely – good news for both parties.
Of course, you can always extend the engagement if everyone is happy, it’s just a way of giving either side the ability to walk away in a dignified, positive manner (even if it hasn’t been a good match).
What to do next
Here are my suggestions:
1. Make a list of all the skills you can offer; including both those you do for work/study and those which you’ve developed through your hobbies.
2. Talk to people who do interesting work, something that you’d happily do for free.
3. Tell them about your skills and suggest they have a think about where you could be useful.
4. Think through the various combinations of paid and unpaid work that will give you the most overall satisfaction; it could be through a paid role in a benevolent business, or a paid job that is supplemented with meaningful volunteering.
5. Have a look at placement matchmaking sites like Vollie, which might spark some ideas about what sort of work is gratifying for you and valuable for an organisation.