The case for volunteers

Dear Volunteer:

Whether you consider yourself an unpaid worker, a true believer in a worthy cause, or a paying-it-forward kind of person, you are one of the approximately 77 million Americans who volunteer some of their time each year. You may be a recent high school graduate, a busy executive, a new retiree — anyone who just wants to make a difference.

The benefits to non-profit organizations are obvious. Those 77 million volunteers generate hours valued at around $167 billion for the groups they serve. But the benefits of volunteering do not only benefit the service recipients.

Winston-Churchill saying

It was former British prime minister/bulldog impressionist Winston Churchill who said, “You make a living by what you get. You make a life by what you give.” Various studies have found that volunteering improves job prospects, increases self-esteem, and reduces everything from loneliness to Alzheimer’s. One study even found that less than two hours of volunteer time per week improved an individual’s longevity!

Fellow volunteers, just wanted to remind you that April is National Volunteer Month, and President Joe Biden declared April 18-24, 2021, as National Volunteer Week. Americans are asked to observe the week by volunteering in service projects across the country. Before any of you would-be volunteers sign up for a project, let’s talk about some ideas and questions to consider.

I say that after having some experience with less than perfect volunteer experiences. My least favorite: serving as the church pianist at a Baptist church where my father was minister. Loved my father; didn’t love Baptist hymns. Plus, my skills were less than professional. One should always stop at playing carols around the tree for family, unless there is a national clamor for a public airing of one’s musical talents. This illustrates several of the questions one should ask oneself before taking on a volunteer project: Do I enjoy this? Do I have the right skill set? Is the timeline clear? Did I mention I did this for over 15 years?

But I digress. Having trouble coming up with a list of potential volunteer sites? Consider participating in a few time-limited public awareness campaigns for social betterment groups.

Just a quick browse through volunteerism and nonprofit websites helped me identify numerous national days, weeks, or months for public awareness of social betterment initiatives; e.g., Keep America Beautiful Month, National Poetry Month, Lawn and Garden Month, and Stress Awareness Month. The Nonprofit Tech for Good website offers the 2021 Cause Awareness & Giving Day Calendar for Nonprofits, listing every special cause imaginable.

All well and good, but let’s kick up the octane a bit. Just to get myself started, I selected a handful of prospects and imagined how I would honor volunteers by taking them to lunch to celebrate their cause. Would our passions be compatible? For example:

  • Multiple Birth Awareness Month —Take quadruplets out to an all-you-can-eat buffet.
  • Pecan Month — Determine over appetizers if we pronounce “pecan” the same way; then snark about peanuts.
  • Canine Fitness Month — Take my dogs to the gym. Who’s a good doggie?
  • Fresh Celery Month — Order Bloody Marys, of course.
  • Scottish American Heritage Month —Glenlivet, anyone?
  • Mathematics Awareness Month — A slice of pi, please.

Before you make any selection, ask yourself the following questions:

What are my passions?  Volunteerism isn’t meant to be painful. For an experience you can look forward to rather than avoid, volunteer for something you feel strongly about. Find your niche, your cause. If you’re not sure what your passion is, you can sample different options based on personal interests and the desire for some “value added” to your volunteer experience; e.g., applying relevant experience to job searches.

What are my skills and strengths? You may have the fiery heart of a social justice warrior, but if your spreadsheet skills are zero, volunteering to maintain the mailing list may not be your best fit. Ideally, the best volunteer experience will combine support of a favorite cause with the development or expansion of your own skills. (See, church pianist.)

What is my availability? Generally, it’s better to under-commit than the converse. Start out with a trial run or two before making long-term commitments. Fit your volunteer time within your normal schedule. Give thought to whether you want occasional or ongoing projects. One option if you don’t want to tie all your available volunteer time to one activity or organization: consider micro volunteering. There are several websites providing resources on non-profit organizations that need time-limited help on a project. It can literally be one phone call or creating one brochure, for example. Catchafire is one good example of a volunteer site for individuals who are looking for time-limited projects. It matches professionals with nonprofits needing their specific skills.

What is my preferred work environment?  The variety of work environments in which to volunteer is huge, and you can easily match the work setting to your personality, location, interests, and convenience. For instance, do you work best alone or as a team member or leader? Do you want the convenience of working at home or crave a new social environment? Virtual or remote volunteer opportunities abound, perfect for introverts, less mobile individuals, people who don’t have their second COVID vaccination yet, or people whose schedule or location prevents easy commutes. For folks who enjoy teamwork and lots of social interaction, consider churches, museums, and other gathering places, or volunteering in support groups for peers.

If you want to really think outside the box, check into international volunteerism. Not to be confused with trendy voluntourism, which is often exploitative of native cultures, international volunteerism combines volunteer work projects with immersive time in other countries. The emphasis is on work. Organizations from Habitat for Humanity to the Peace Corps appeal to gap-year students, recent retirees, and others who have more than a week or two to spend in a global location. Participants can often learn or develop new skills, enjoy some travel time, and meet people from around the world. is a helpful website that focuses on a variety of experiences abroad, including volunteerism.

OK folks — April is almost over! Pick a project, stretch yourself, give back, and live longer!

Can you join me?

Anxiously awaiting your reply,

Pamela Davis

Pam Davis is a retired mental health administrator and current writer, consultant, and high-volume/variable-quality media consumer.