8 Ways To Maximize Your Volunteer Experience

We all know that it’s good to give back, but sometimes it’s difficult to buckle down and find the time to commit to a cause. Here are some quick tips on volunteering and how to get more from it in return.

Define your expectations.

When you first decide to volunteer with an organization, identify the skills you want to improve during your time there. Depending on the level of involvement, this could mean jotting notes for yourself or sitting down one-on-one with your boss or the program director. Establish solid goals like, "I want increase my proficiency with this software, observe board meetings, or manage one major event." Being direct about what you wish to gain makes it easier for the organization to match you with projects that use your full potential.

Start gradually.

Many nonprofits offer roles at various commitment levels. You don't need to dive in and agree to organize a major event, project or committee before you know the lay of the land. You can say, "I can commit to four hours per month/one event a year/three cases a quarter." Be realistic about your time. You have your paid gig, your side hustle and your passion projects, as well as plus family/social/Netflix and napping responsibilities. Everyone scores more when you’re honest about the level of time commitment you can give.

Track your progress.

Track the tasks you complete and projects you contribute to and check back periodically to be sure you’re on the right track. Keep an ongoing list of skills you are honing and make sure they are aligning with your goals. Update your resume and LinkedIn, and be sure to connect with your volunteer organizations across social media. If you invest your time in an organization, even a few hours a month, you should feel entitled to call upon that organization for support as a reference.

Network like champion today.

Have an “elevator pitch” and a few concisely-worded anecdotes ready if someone should ask. Even if you aren't 100% sure about that "next step," just have options in mind so you know what you want to consider next. Discussions about your quest for your true passion are beautiful and wonderful; but here is a partial list of where they should happen: in your journal, with your best friend, your sister, your mom, your career/wellness coach, your therapist, God or a true mentor.

Here is where to not have them: at the water cooler, when you have literally sixty seconds to leave an executive with a good impression. Keep it succinct and memorable. For example: "Long term I want to direct major motion pictures. In the next 6-12 months, I'd like to be a production assistant with XYZ or ABC film studios. I'd also like to secure an apprenticeship with a screenwriter or attend XYZ film festival." 

Offer praise.

Don't be a saccharine phony, but if you observe someone who impresses or inspires you, tell them. Your positive observations can offer fuel to keep someone going who has been on their grind for few years. Feel confident saying “well done” or “I learned this from you today.” People remember receiving sincere praise, and the person who was observant enough to give it. 

Know that a paid position isn’t a guaranteed result.

If it happens, great. Very few internships or volunteer experiences end in an offer of a paid position, but they rather lead you to a new (paying) opportunity organically. If the only motivation for giving your time to a nonprofit is the hope of a paid job, get out and channel your time and energy elsewhere. Nonprofits run on volunteer power and unless you have been told otherwise, volunteering a certain amount of time does not equal paid employment. Focus on what you are being paid in: experiences and connections.

Avoid the haters.

This is universal tip, and nonprofits are like any other industry; channel your time and energy into your work, and detour any negative distractions. Within organizations, you will meet all types of personalities. If you encounter a volunteer or director who is burnt out, in it for the wrong reasons or perhaps too close to the cause, take a page from Tina Fey’s Bossypants anddon't waste your energy trying to educate or change opinions. Go "Over! Under! Through!" and opinions will change organically when you're the boss.”

Know when it's time to leave.

You won’t stay with most organizations forever, so staying in an intern/volunteer position for too long is not good either. Don’t be shy about saying, “It's time for me to move along to the next steps in my path.” Consider the experience a win and leave your reputation and connections with the organization flawless. Those connections you made can become the people who keep you in mind and recommend you for future opportunities.

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