American Volunteerism is growing. In its 2010 report1 , Giving USA estimates that the number of volunteers in 2009 increased as a result of widespread un- or under-employment2. According to projections made by Dr. Susan Raymond of Changing Our World, by 2015 there will be well over 1.7 million public charities in the United States, over two-thirds of which will be under twenty five years old3. In addition to the implications for general philanthropy, these trends point to a climate ripe for a renewed commitment to volunteerism in the coming decade.
Volunteering, especially for a year or more, is particularly popular with recent college graduates who participate in programs like City Year, Americorps and Peace Corps to gain valuable personal and professional experience and, in some cases, earn federal grants to further their education. I know from personal experience how rewarding post-graduate volunteering can be; I spent my first two years after graduating from Fordham University teaching at a High School in East Harlem through an Americorps program. My volunteer years were an incredibly fulfilling and challenging experience, and one that I would recommend to anyone looking to expand their perspective. Before embarking on one of these programs, or any volunteer opportunity, I would recommend considering the following points:
Listen to your heart and your head
Once you make the choice to give of your time for a cause, deciding upon what that cause will be can seem daunting. According to the National Center for Charitable Statistics4, there are currently 1,569,572 registered nonprofits in the United States alone. There are as many, if not more possible focus areas for a volunteer, and a great many of them are very compelling. An emotional connection to the need you are serving is important, however, it is also important to be practical. If you are troubled by childhood literacy rates in your area but have very little patience with children, it is probably not a good idea for you to tutor in an after school program.
Alternately, if you have a particular skill set that could be of use to a nonprofit organization, you might consider focusing your search on organizations with those specific operational needs. Emily Cunningham, a former Americorps volunteer who currently works for a Microfinance Organization in Central America, offers a perspective on the role of a volunteer within a nonprofit organization: “Many volunteer opportunities exist because of a lack of resources or people willing to do the tough work that is required to make a non-profit run.” In my experience, the most fulfilling volunteer experiences occur when there is a balance between charitable interest and practical impact, and the first step to finding that balance is choosing a focus area that you care about.
Do your research
Narrowing down your focus area is important, but even after you’ve decided whether you want to clean up a park in your own city for a weekend or teach reading halfway across the world for three years, there are still a variety of organizations and programs to choose from. There can be surprising differences between organizations that seem to have the same mission or serve the same populations. For example, it is important to learn whether the organization you will be working for values independence over consensus, whether they have a religious or political affiliation, and what sort of relationship they foster with the communities they serve. This kind of information cannot be found by a simple search on Google, though that is a starting point.
Ingrid Velmonte, an MBA candidate with extensive domestic and international service experience currently living in Washington, DC suggests seeking out and talking to people who have done the kind of work you want to do or lived where you are thinking of going to get their insight and help you to prepare. It is important, in her words, “to stay open-minded and accept that others have different viewpoints than you do.” These conversations may be difficult if you are interested in traveling to a remote or distant location for your service, but most international service programs will give you contact information for former volunteers if you request it. Some even require them as part of the application process.
Expect the unexpected
One of the most valuable opportunities that volunteering presents is a chance to step out of your comfort zone and experience a new community or environment in a way you might not have otherwise. It is important to research and to plan, especially for a long-term volunteer program, but it is also important to be able to live in the moment as much as possible when you are actually volunteering. Joe Blankenship, a former member of the Jesuit Volunteer Corps currently pursuing a Masters in Urban Planning in Brooklyn, recommends being genuine in your actions and intentions. “If you’re open to trying new things and meeting new people and truly want to become engaged in the experience, then it will be extraordinary.”
For more information on volunteer programs in the US and around the world, visit www.idealist.org and www.volunteermatch.org. For more information about volunteering in New York City, visit www.nycservice.org.
1 Giving USA News [www.givingusareports.org/news]
2 Giving USA Foundation / Giving USA 2010
3 Source: The Young and The Relentless: FLiP’s Signature Survey
4 Quick Facts About Nonprofits. Urban Institute