Volunteering in New York is a noble cause and one that is absolutely worth the time, and with all the options available my recommendation is to really do a bit of self-evaluation and research to find a volunteer opportunity that personally fits for you. What motivates someone and what logistically works for them isn’t always going to work for you!
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My friend Alex Peters helps us guide our way through what can be a very difficult process: I’d recommend thinking about looking for volunteering opportunities in the following way:
Why do you want to volunteer at all?
Is it purely to give back, or to meet people, or to learn, or to network professionally, or spend time outdoors, or to build your resume?
All of these are super valid reasons, but keep your motivation in mind when you’re looking at opportunities! Some will be more hands-on, some might be more data-entry, and some might be a mix, but it’s important that you set your standards and your targets right from the outset.
What really gets you fired up (in general and about volunteering)?
What do you deeply care about? And/or, what are you more interested in learning about?
Feel free to be self-centered here – because if you find a volunteer opportunity that you don’t actually care about, you’re going to waste your time AND the organization’s time. If you don’t care about the cause, you’ll find yourself less motivated to put in the extra work, and less inclined to care about the outcomes. This doesn’t work for anyone, and with so many volunteering opportunities available, there’s something out there for you as well.
What time commitment can you make?
Be realistic, and conservative. This one is really important when you’re approaching not for profits and charities.
It’s way more helpful to have a consistent volunteer once a month than a weekly volunteer who flakes 30% of the time. Think about how much time, and when – will weeknights leave you feeling totally drained? Will you be too hungover for a Saturday morning shift? (Been there!)
Again: It’s not an issue to say that you have one half-day every month and that’s it. Just be up front about it!
Where can you volunteer, and where do you want to volunteer?
If those places don’t overlap, how are you going to make it work? Would you be open to volunteering remotely?
Use Google Maps to calculate the subway commute between your office/volunteer place/home at the actual time you’d be volunteering, thinking about the weekend and nighttime trackwork.
If it’s going to take you an hour to get home after a volunteer shift, is that sustainable? Will you immediately regret your decision? Maybe give it a few shots to experience it before committing completely.
What skills can you offer the not-for-profit or charity organization?
Think both hard and soft skills (e.g. detail-oriented, confident around people, able to wrangle a crowd, good with kids, patient).
Are you willing to do the important ‘grunt work’ that keeps nonprofits functioning (data entry, ladling soup, packing boxes) or do you want a ‘professional’ role that you can add to your resume?
Again, be realistic. No one wants a resentful volunteer. Be sure you understand WHY a particular role is important to the organization.
Volunteer orientations and onboarding processes take up a lot of time and energy at nonprofits, especially small organizations. By doing your part and thinking about all of this ahead of time (rather than jumping into something that doesn’t work and then needing to leave after a short time), you’re saving that nonprofit money that can be better spent on providing their much-needed community services. Woo!
How can I get started volunteering in New York City?
When you’re ready to start looking, I can also recommend New York Cares (great for one-off opportunities) and Volunteer Match as good starting points.
You could also just Google “(Thing I care about) + (volunteer) + (my neighborhood)” and see what shows up!
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