How do I approach non-profits about substantive volunteer work?
February 8, 2013 5:09 PM   Subscribe

I'm between jobs and looking to spend some of my time volunteering with a non-profit to do substantive work that involves my professional skills. How do I best approach them to propose this?

I just moved to a new city with my partner so that he could pursue a work opportunity. I'm still looking for a job, and my ideal position would be working in communications for a non-profit organization. My most recent position was in corporate communications for a technology company, but I do have experience working for non-profits in the past, though they were administrative roles. The area has a lot of non-profits, but until I build a network here I'm just sending my resume to open listings and hoping that it gets seen.

I recognize that this isn't likely to be very effective, so I'm looking to volunteer with an organization as a way to 1) build my network of non-profit professionals 2) bolster my experience with NPOs and develop some samples for a portfolio and 3) use my extra time and skills in a way that's meaningful and productive.

I've seen organizations that are looking for interns to assist with communications work, but I'm afraid that organizations will be hesitant to accept a volunteer for that same work because I can't guarantee that I'll be available during the work week for the next three months like a student intern can. I'm willing to volunteer around 10-15 hours a week while I'm unemployed. Once I do get a full-time job, I would be willing to continue writing and working from home on projects for a few hours a week after our relationship has been established.

I'm wondering how to best approach NPOs to propose this. I'm also wondering if there's an arrangement that would better meet their needs while still giving me the opportunity to achieve my three objectives above. I also want to tactfully make sure it's clear that I want to do substantive work--ideally writing content and press releases or helping with social media responsibilities, but I would also be willing to help with contact management or the administrative logistics for fundraising and development. It's not that I think I'm too good to schlep boxes, and having worked for non-profits I know that even Executive Directors spend time stuffing envelopes. I just don't want to end up spending 15 hours a week doing only menial tasks.

Does anyone have any experience with this type of arrangement? I would be especially interested in hearing from people who work in non-profit communications or who manage volunteers. Thanks for any advice you can provide!
posted by Colonel_Chappy to Work & Money (10 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: My nonprofit is constantly looking for people like you. Might I recommend There are a lot of organizations like mine that are looking for people like you to do tasks like the ones you describe who advertise there. VolunteerMatch is another good option. You might not have thought about this but this work is something you can do remotely - the nonprofit does not have to be local to you.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 5:16 PM on February 8, 2013

I manage volunteers for a NPO and I can say, it our area (rural, middle America) we would collectively shit out pants if someone with your skills offer to volunteer in any capacity. BUT. In the end, your volunteer time would probably better serve our organization if you were doing exactly the things you describe NOT wanting to do.

For us, we don't give access to any social media accounts, fundraising or other contacts, and the like to anyone who is not a paid employee. I'm guessing that at some point our ED and board have decided that it's just not a safe thing to do. Hell, we have a wonderful, trustworthy, completely perfect and lovely volunteer that assists me occasionally in some things to do with out online life and presence and after a year she is still not allowed nary a password or login name.

That said, you're clearly in a larger area than I and there seems to be NPO's around that are much larger than the one that employs me as well. I'd be VERY clear about what you want and can do for the organization. You going to have to state to them, very clearly, that you're only interested in certain things and hope that they hear you and pass on what you want to do for them if they can't find a way to utilize those skills so you can hopefully find a non-profit that CAN use you for all you're worth.

I'd call around to gauge interest and go into any meeting with a resume, just so that ED's and boards know what your skills are. I'd be very clear about your goals with this, specifically number 2 you listed above.

[On preview, treehorn+bunny has it with I forgot that site existed! It's probably going to be easier for you to check that out as opposed to cold calling or just showing up at NPO's and hoping to be useful in the ways you want.]
posted by youandiandaflame at 5:20 PM on February 8, 2013

Best answer: Have you heard of Taproot?
posted by ziggly at 5:38 PM on February 8, 2013

If you're in Chicago as your profile indicates, try Chicago Cares, an affiliate of the national HandsOn network, and ask about "skills-based volunteering." (I'm on the board of our local affiliate, and SBV is a distinction we use for longer-term or back office assignments.) I think there is also a HandsOn affiliate in the suburbs.
posted by Sweetie Darling at 6:11 PM on February 8, 2013

Best answer: I'm willing to volunteer around 10-15 hours a week while I'm unemployed. Once I do get a full-time job, I would be willing to continue writing and working from home on projects for a few hours a week after our relationship has been established.

As a longtime NPO'er, I wish you luck and think you have a good offer here, but you might want to dial back on stating that last intention. I've never seen it work out - once full-time employment comes along the priority for unpaid volunteer work just drops off. It's understandable and natural. I wouldn't mention anything about it, because any seasoned person will raise an eyebrow.

You may be able to be of help or advance a project right now. You need to connect with an organization that has short-term needs or discrete projects that have been on the back burner, but it's unlikely you'd continue with even 3-5 hours a week after that. You might, but you can make that offer when the time comes. In the meantime, tailor your approach to assisting with short-term objectives. There are probably many projects you could do, such as compiling mailing lists or target lists, writing press releases, or doing some research.

One thing you might try, since you want to learn more about the NPO landscape, is to line up some informational interviews with people who do NPO communications. If you learn of needs, you could follow up with an offer.
posted by Miko at 6:14 PM on February 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

Seconding the recommendation for Taproot. It's great. You might also look at joining a non-profit board, which might better fit your skill set and desired outcomes.
posted by judith at 8:29 PM on February 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

Just call them. Pick an organisation doing something you care about and call them. I work for a non profit and we love hearing from people who want to do stuff for us for free. And since beggars can't be choosers, we don't care about your office hours or if delivery is longer than if we paid someone. If your work is good, we're grateful. Flip side is our resources are precious so don't waste our time if you're not committed to following through. If a paid job came up, finish what you promised us. We'll be forever grateful.
posted by Lollie1974 at 9:34 PM on February 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

Yeah I was also going to suggest Taproot, although they have limited geographic areas where they are set up right now.
posted by radioamy at 1:03 AM on February 9, 2013

Best answer: I'm the communications director for a health care advocacy NPO in Chicago. Nthing all the suggestions for idealist and Taproot, and is also a good resource.
posted by deliciae at 1:28 AM on February 9, 2013

Response by poster: Thanks for all of the great suggestions! I had forgotten that Idealist also had volunteer opportunities in addition to job opportunities. Thanks especially to those who suggested Taproot--while it's a little too time-intensive for me right now, it gave me the idea to search for the magic words "pro bono." I found out that my new town (Austin) has its own pro bono site. I hooked up with an organization looking for my exact skill set!
posted by Colonel_Chappy at 4:17 PM on March 11, 2013

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