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Guide To Volunteering

Spend some time researching charities before you invest your time helping their endeavors


With many charities reporting that they use volunteers, it is hard to imagine where the philanthropic community would be today if it wasn't for the help of these altruistic individuals. Volunteers perform a variety of free tasks for charities that are too under-funded and under-staffed. A volunteer might stuff envelopes, feed animals, tutor children, build houses, serve as a museum docent, counsel those in crisis, sell tickets or just answer the phone. At the highest levels, volunteers serve on the board of directors, and are charged with the crucial task of governing the organization.

Just how generous are Americans with their time? According to a recent government study,  62.8 million Americans ( 25.3 percent of the adult population) volunteered in 2014 providing 7.9 billion hours of service valued at $184 billion. The study found that the average number of hours Americans volunteered per capita was 32.1 (a decline from a high of 38 in 2004). It is nearly impossible to quantify the financial value of all these volunteers. Many tasks completed by volunteers do not have counterparts in the for-profit sector by which we can measure their value. These calculations become even more complex if you try to incorporate the costs of benefits that the charity would incur by hiring a full-time employee to cover the work of volunteers. To simplify things, many charities use the industry standard of $23.56 per hour (for 2015) to calculate the monetary value of their volunteers (the 2014 value was $23.07 per hour). Thus the median American, who volunteered 32.1 hours in 2014, gave approximately $740 to charity.

Perhaps you are among those that generously gave of their time to help make this world a better place. If so, did you research your volunteer decision to the same extent that you scrutinize your charitable giving decisions? I doubt you'd feel confident sending a charity a check for a thousand dollars without doing some investigating into the charity's endeavors first. So shouldn't you also conduct some research before you donate your time? Wouldn't you be troubled to learn that you donated nearly 33 hours of your time to an organization that went bankrupt, as opposed to another charity that was pursuing the same mission and had enough cash flow to sustain its work well into the future? A well-informed volunteer is not only more likely to make a commitment to charity, but also more apt to make a significant impact on that organization's work.

Identify charities that match your charitable interests
Similar to making a giving decision, you should begin your research by determining what it is you want to accomplish and identifying charities that work to achieve those goals. Use our site to create a list of charities that match your interests and are located near your home.

Examine their financial health
Maybe you feel most comfortable donating your time to a charity that is fiscally efficient. Or maybe you see an opportunity to help a charity whose revenue hasn't grown as quickly as the need for its programs and thus could really use an infusion of volunteer assistance until it can hire more staff. Either way, Charity Navigator's ratings will provide the insight you need.

Evaluate their programs
Once you are satisfied with the organization's finances, invest some time exploring the charity's programmatic successes. Weed out those that can't clearly communicate their mission, goals, accomplishments and challenges. Continue to examine their work until you are left with a list of exceptional charities for whom you'd be proud to work.

Quantify and qualify what you can offer
Finally, contact your list of potential charities to asses their volunteer needs and determine if your skills match those needs. With many charities having paid volunteer coordinators, don't be surprised if you are asked to stop in for an interview. You may even be required to undergo extensive training once you are accepted into their program. Thus it is a good idea to conduct a self-assessment to ascertain your personal goals before you run off to meet with the charity. Be sure you can answer the following questions:

  • How much time can I realistically give in a week, month or year?

  • What days of the week and time of day am I available to volunteer?

  • What unique talents do I possess that would help this charity achieve its mission?

  • What tasks am I unable or not willing to do?

  • What do I hope to gain from the experience?

    • Do I want to develop a new skill set that would be transferable to the workplace?

    • Do I want to meet new people with similar interests?

    • Do I just want the gratifying feeling of helping?

Make a commitment
Once you identify a charity worthy of your time and are offered a volunteer position, it is important that you make a personal commitment to be there for that organization. Volunteers that show up late, cancel at the last minute and produce limited results encumber the charity, costing it money and preventing it from fulfilling its mission. A reliable volunteer with a strong work ethic can go a long way towards helping a charity meet its goals. Remember the organization has made an investment in you and is depending on you to produce a return.



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