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It's somewhat ironic that the easiest time I ever had volunteering was when my good deeds were court-ordered.
My first time
When I was 19, a college classmate and I painted lines of our poems on an alley wall. Long story short, the punishment for pleading "no contest" to the charge of malicious destruction of property was a fine and community service. At my first meeting with my probation officer, she handed me a list of court-approved organizations and told me to choose one.
I actually chose three and had a grand time ushering at university concerts, archiving materials at a historic theater, and helping make a Gay Pride Parade float. But it's really easy to volunteer when someone else has done the legwork and makes sure you show up.
What to expect
Subsequent volunteering experiences, done on my own initiative, haven't been as effortless. To help other novice volunteers and help promote the spirit of Foolanthropy, here are some of the common misconceptions volunteers often have:
- All you need to do is show up. As a poster on the Living Below Your Means discussion board pointed out, the common conception that volunteering at a soup kitchen means, well, you just show up at the soup kitchen, isn't quite accurate. A lot of organizations that deal with food require a volunteer orientation. Most, if not all, organizations that focus on children or mental health issues require training -- and often more than one session. So do some research before contacting an organization. Volunteermatch.org is one good resource. If you have a specific nonprofit in mind, a look at its website should provide information about the hours volunteers are needed, the kind of work that's most useful, and what time commitment, if any, is required.
- When you show up, you'll be expected. Organizations that use volunteers are, by definition, understaffed, and the friendly person you spoke with over the phone might not be the same person who's at reception on your first day. Patience and a sense of humor are invaluable, both for staff and volunteers.
- Every situation will be covered in training. Mentoring a teenager was great. Listening to that teenager offhandedly talk about whether or not to try drugs wasn't so great. Especially if you want to work with children, make sure there's at least one staff person you can turn to with questions and concerns, and know the organization's protocol for handling delicate situations.
- You'll be performing your dream task. My most memorable experience so far has been the afternoon in Boston I spent pounding at half-thawed chicken with a tenderizer, breaking rhythm only when the head chef scolded me for not flattening the meat enough. Did my hands smell like poultry the rest of the week? Of course. Did I feel a surge of pride when I left that evening and saw the chicken dinners ready to be delivered to people in the area living with HIV? Of course.
If you go in prepared and with realistic expectations, not only are you more useful to the organization, but you're more likely to have a truly enjoyable and rewarding experience.
From volunteering to donating
There are many ways to help out a charity you care about, from volunteering to spreading the word to donating. If you'd like to learn more about different kinds of charities and ways to make a difference with a donation, check out our Foolanthropy site. Not only will you learn a lot about the Fool's current charity drive and our five amazing recipients, you'll have access to a discussion board filled with ideas, passions, and opinions.
For related reading, check out:
Sarah Erdreich is pretty sure poetry isn't usually considered criminal.