What's the best volunteering?
November 18, 2011 6:38 AM   Subscribe

How can I best evaluate volunteer opportunities?

To make sure the money I donate has the most impact, I use Charity Navigator and publicly available information to figure out which charity does the best financially and programmatically. But how do I figure out what volunteer opportunity gives the most bang for the buck? I get tons of emails and information on hundreds of opportunities available to volunteer, but I want to choose the best one! Assume "best" means "most efficacious in alleviating [problem]", not things like "I meet other young people in my community" or "I get to hang in really beautiful parks", which are worthy reasons to volunteer but not what I'm looking for.

a) How can I best evaluate any given volunteer opportunity?
b) What are the best volunteer opportunities/organizations you've encountered?

Caveats: I am not in a specialized profession (carpenter, accountant, doctor, etc.), but you can assume I have basic office and professional skills, and that I am able to complete basic manual labor. Volunteer opportunities should be domestic; if relevant, I am in Washington, DC. I do not need information on where/how to donate, on volunteer opportunities related to a religion, or information on working with political campaigns. I am looking specifically at volunteer opportunities available around my full-time (and change) job, but if you think that the best volunteers are those who live in residence or something, tell me about it!
posted by quadrilaterals to Human Relations (8 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
The simplest answer is to volunteer for a cause you believe in; that will keep you motivated to continue doing whatever it is. Non-profit websites should list the different volunteer positions.

Since this matters a lot to you and you are in DC and it's winter, maybe working at a soup kitchen would give you the satisfaction. You won't be alleviating homelessness or poverty but for that meal, you are helping someone(s) directly. A lot of people will be volunteering around the holidays but the real need is the rest of the year.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 7:04 AM on November 18, 2011

As a former supervisor of volunteers, I would say that the number one thing you can do to make yourself an effective volunteer is to show up regularly. So picking a volunteer opportunity that really fits with your schedule is probably the number one thing you can do to improve your effectiveness.

The truth is, for most places, the actual amount of work volunteers do (unless they are particularly skilled) is almost (and in some cases completely) outweighed by the amount of work required to coordinate and supervise the volunteers. You can reduce some of that volunteer overhead by making a lasting commitment.
posted by mskyle at 7:39 AM on November 18, 2011 [3 favorites]

What mskyle said times a million! I run a nonprofit and supervise about 40 to 50 volunteers per year. They get more out of it than the people they are serving do. Because it's an international volunteer opportunity, I am able to make them pay a fee to volunteer with us, but most of them do not understand that they would do more to help the cause by helping to fundraise than by trying to actually do the work to solve the problems themselves (i.e. prevent malaria, give people access to safe water, etc). The problem is most people don't have enough time to devote to make a real difference, and we have full time paid staff who are out there making that difference every day in a much more effective way.

Now if someone was a water engineer and donated their services to help us construct wells, that would help save us money and accomplish the goal. So I would say maybe if there actually is some special skill you have, even though you are not in a specialized profession, to try to capitalize on that to help the cause. Also, consider joining the organization as a volunteer board member or trustee - this may require fundraising, but if you are able to help the organization run (i.e. skills with marketing, publicity, fundraising, grant writing, human resources, accounting, web stuff, social media, etc.) then that will probably help them more than you volunteering to walk dogs at the shelter, or serve food to the homeless. Check Idealist.org and post back here about specific opportunities you're weighing once you find them. Every cause is so different and so is every nonprofit.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 8:44 AM on November 18, 2011

It seems like it would be hard to compare agencies that serve different purposes. But for ones that serve a similar purpose, you might be able to do it with some cooperative research.

For example, if you're comparing groups that house the homeless, you could contact them and ask how many volunteer hours they use in a given month (don't know how willing they would be to give out that info). Then you could ask them or maybe find out elsewhere how many "person-nights" (meaning one person housed for one night) they served in the same time period, and then divide for a rate.
posted by maurreen at 10:59 AM on November 18, 2011

Probably the best way to evaluate volunteer opportunities is to get started volunteering. There's no consensus on the best way to make a difference--that's why there are so many different models. It's also going to be highly personal--what you believe is important for making a difference.

I think you start volunteering and evaluate as you go.
posted by vitabellosi at 11:32 AM on November 18, 2011

Well-run organizations will be more effective that poorly run organizations. If there is an organization like Seattle Works in your town, that will be a good opportunity to expose yourself to a lot of different organizations in a somewhat organized and coordinated way.

Some of the organizations that you will encounter will be obviously effective and others will be obviously teetering on the edge of disaster.
posted by Kwine at 12:23 PM on November 18, 2011

I agree with all the posts above.

I'd add a couple of things to your list of factors to consider:
- find a charity that you can provide a regular committment to given your full time work. I found that the most limiting factor when I was looking for volunteer work.
- what are you passionate about? It's all very well saying that Charity X is most effective at alleviating problem X, but if you don't care deeply about problem X, then you may well get bored and frustrated at volunteering for them. Charity Y may be less effective, but if you care about the cause, you're more likely to stick around (and possibly help them to become more effective!) And ultimately, it's important that you enjoy what you're doing.
- if you volunteer for a charity who has fewer volunteers or who struggles to recruit them (possibly because their cause is less "sexy") then your input will be more valuable.
- do you want to work in a back office role or on the front line? Different charities offer different opportunities.

Nothing wrong with asking to go along and try it out for a shift before committing. You'll get a good feel for the project by spending some time with them, and that might help you decide.

Good luck!
posted by finding.perdita at 12:28 PM on November 18, 2011

I volunteer with one brick, which has a non-commitment philosophy. so you can sign up for a bunch of different events. I do 2-3 different events a month (for about five or six years now). You get a sense pretty quickly about which events provide the most impact to the community. For example, we have a food bank that feeds 250,000 people a month and I feel like that event has been the most beneficial. But some of my friends like other events more. So my advice is to just go out and volunteer (one brick has a dc chapter) and see what seems most beneficial to you. You can also try the site volunteer match which let's you plug in your interests.
posted by bananafish at 5:19 PM on November 18, 2011

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