You’re excited about volunteering and think you’ve found a great opportunity that will allow you to give back and advance your career…great! But once you get started, how do you make the most of it and ensure you learn and grow? In this piece, Curry W. Smith, Executive Director of Young Leadership Council – New Orleans—a nonprofit, non-partisan civic organization created to develop leadership through community projects—shares some tips on how to make the most of a volunteer opportunity.
For more information about Young Leadership Council, visit ylcnola.org. If you want to learn about volunteering, check out the Idealist Volunteer Info Center and the International Volunteer Info Center.
by Curry W. Smith
Volunteer opportunities can and should lead to personal growth and professional development. A little sweat equity can pay dividends in the form of career advancement. And I can’t say it more eloquently than the old adage: “you get out of it what you put into it.” There are, no doubt, plenty of charitable, philanthropic, and otherwise socially conscious organizations near you. But that doesn’t mean you have to volunteer with all of them. Or half of them. Or even four of them. You have to find what’s right for you and, once you do find that opportunity, you have to make the most of it. Here’s how:
Be passionate and curious
The idea of mentoring eighth graders may terrify you. Recycling might feel more like a veritable chore than a valiant cause. Maybe sports just weren’t your thing. Picking up trash in a park could be the last thing you’d ever want to do. And that’s OK. When your heart isn’t in it, it shows, so you should look for volunteer opportunities that make you excited about getting out of bed at 7 in the morning on a Saturday.
Additionally, look for ways to learn beyond your regular responsibilities. Passion shows not just in the work you’ve decided to take on but also in how you interact with the cause, the people, and the organization overall.
Make a firm commitment of time and energy
Everyone with an internet connection keeps a busy schedule. “Crazy busy,” according to a beautifully written New York Times article. But it actually isn’t that difficult to set aside some time each week or just once a month. Sacrifice a DVRed episode or two of “The Daily Show” (with my apologies to Mr. Stewart); rid yourself of a reddit binge here or there … Ta-da! You’ve made time to volunteer.
It isn’t hard to budget that time, but it is important. It’ll only lead to frustration (for you and for others working with you) if you don’t carve out some dedicated time in your schedule to show up once a week or to give a weekend each month or to do whatever it is that your project requires. You’ll get the most out of the work you do—and, obviously, the volunteer program will get the most out of you—when you can commit your time, attention, and energy on a regular basis.
Think about ways that you can add value (buzzword bingo!)
Just because you’ve finished the tasks assigned by the volunteer coordinator, it doesn’t mean there aren’t other things you can do. Don’t be afraid to ask how else you can help. I promise there will be something you can do. There will always be something you can do.
And if you see something that could be improved, tell the project leaders about it, in a constructive way. You provide a different perspective, and even the best volunteer projects have some room for improvement. The point of volunteering isn’t just to be involved; it’s to be engaged.
Whether you’re reading this in New Orleans, New York City, or New Delhi … I sincerely hope you’ll consider joining a group that’s making a difference in your own backyard. The organization will be better for the time you give to it, and—odds are—you will be, too.
Curry currently serves as Executive Director of Young Leadership Council (YLC), a nonprofit organization in New Orleans focused on leadership development opportunities for young professionals through community service. He joined YLC from the regional economic development organization Greater New Orleans, Inc. Curry—a native of Lafayette, La.—is also a founding member and former board member of Emerging Philanthropists of New Orleans (EPNO).