What is the greatest impact I can make with volunteer or service work?
May 26, 2014 1:00 PM   Subscribe

Suppose I want to do service or volunteer work, not just to have fun or meet people, but to really make the biggest, most necessary, most impactful, most meaningful change I can. What type of service work is that? I'm in Boston.
posted by htid to Society & Culture (27 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
I would imagine helping with food collection and distribution from your local food kitchen network would change the lives of more people than just about any other effort, since so many people are right on the edge of food security and can be kept from serious problems by a couple of well-timed bags of groceries. It's not glamorous, but it's where the real need can be met by real effort.
posted by acm at 1:04 PM on May 26, 2014

I found volunteering on a crisis line to have a pretty big impact.

You can save a life just by picking up the phone.
posted by sevenofspades at 1:08 PM on May 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

What skills do you have?
posted by travelwithcats at 1:09 PM on May 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

Big Brothers & Big Sisters.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 1:19 PM on May 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Skills: PhD in a STEM field, lots of good communication and project management skills. However, I'm trying to get an idea of what is really important and necessary, even outside of what my specific skills are. So, "Teach girls to do science" might be an obvious volunteer activity for me, but I'm not sure that is where the greatest impact is. E.g., maybe I'd make a better impact by applying my leadership skills to getting foster kids into better homes.

Also -- reasons why a certain activity makes a big difference are most useful. That is more useful than just the name of a specific volunteer activity. It is helpful to hear reasons, statistics, or personal experiences to understand what difference is being made. Thanks!
posted by htid at 1:22 PM on May 26, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Probably donating money, if you believe the Effective Altruism people.
posted by d. z. wang at 1:22 PM on May 26, 2014 [6 favorites]

I think it probably depends on what you consider important service populations - adults, men, women, children, animals, local vs. global, etc? - and on your skillset, as travelwithcats brings up, because playing to your strengths will maximize your contribution.

Volunteering at a completely overwhelmed animal shelter has been the most impactful and meaningful volunteer work I've done so far, though the work I've just started doing in hydroponics may end up having a bigger impact.
posted by vegartanipla at 1:24 PM on May 26, 2014

Best answer: Little Brothers Friends of the Elderly is a great organization with immediately meaningful results and they have a chapter in Boston. I recommend.
posted by johngoren at 1:26 PM on May 26, 2014

Best answer: Donate your blood and platelets on a regular basis. You can do so at the American Red Cross on Tremont Street or at the MGH Blood donor center.
posted by Sal and Richard at 1:26 PM on May 26, 2014 [2 favorites]

Given that you have a highly developed skill in a very specific field, and tons of knowledge that barely anyone has, I would think the biggest impact you personally could make would have to involve your field.
posted by winterportage at 1:35 PM on May 26, 2014 [3 favorites]

I'm trying to get an idea of what is really important and necessary,

I think you're really going to have to define what these terms mean (for you). Is it saving lives? Making sure kids don't go hungry? Making sure poor people have access to good legal services?

Important to whom? Necessary to whom? Entire philosophies are built on your question. I know people who volunteer at syringe exchanges - is that more important and necessary than stocking pantries at food banks?

You are the only person who can define what is really important and necessary to you that donating your time and skills and help promote (or prevent, as the case may be).

I volunteer as a counter at a fall hawk migration site, and the work I do gets added to a 25-year+ data set that can be used to look at climate change and habitat changes. I think this is incredibly important and necessary work, but I don't know that I could declare it as more important and necessary than some other volunteer gig. It fits my personality and I love doing it, and I've done it more than a decade now. Don't underestimate the power of loving your gig even if it's not objectively the most important thing ever.
posted by rtha at 1:39 PM on May 26, 2014 [10 favorites]

If you know how to program, there's a big unmet need for apps and tools that benefit poor and marginalized people but aren't profitable. Too many skilled people are developing games and music apps instead of apps that track police violence or tabulate places that offer food or whatever.

Non-profits also need people who understand technology and can make their back ends more efficient- like a program that calculates the optimal route between pickup and drop off points and reduces fuel costs for a food bank. Pretty much every non profit has a non optimal tech set up.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 1:59 PM on May 26, 2014 [6 favorites]

Best answer: Brothers & Sisters - sometimes the biggest difference is changing one person's life by spending weekly quality time with them.

Also they are VERY well run - volunteers have follow up meetings with social workers, and stats show that after 18months with a pairing, a little brother/sister has gains in self-esteem that stick with them for years.

Finally I can't remember the umbrella charity that supports BB&S but they have one of the best expense ratios of the charity circuit.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 2:10 PM on May 26, 2014 [3 favorites]

Best answer: You could be a guardian ad litem. It's basically being an advocate for kids in the foster system. Once my terms on the boards I sit on are up I'll be doing that. I exlect it will be draining but have a lot of positive impact.

Boston site is here.
posted by jpe at 2:43 PM on May 26, 2014 [6 favorites]

Best answer: I was coming to suggest being a Court Appointed Special Advocate but jpe beat me to it!

I don't know if the best or most effective thing you can do overall but from the statistics and cases I've read it makes a really large and immediate difference in children's lives to have someone consistent who can advocate for them as long as they are in the system.
posted by SpaceWarp13 at 3:00 PM on May 26, 2014 [3 favorites]

It may sound simple, but I'm a Girl Scout troop leader. I have 15 9-11 year olds in my troop, and I've been working with them since they were in kindergarten.

If you ever wondered about the impact you can have in a single girl's life...

A friend of mine who is a musical engineer came and spoke to the girls when they were in 2nd grade, and it was simply amazing.

Just volunteer.
posted by heathrowga at 3:16 PM on May 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

"I'm trying to get an idea of what is really important and necessary..."

There is no one thing that is important and necessary. There are immediate dire situations and there are situations where your skillset can help in the long term - and there are situations where both apply. Volunteering, I hung a lot of sheetrock and led crews after Katrina but the people in St. Bernard Parish were happiest not for my construction skills but because people showed up to help.

It's a decision that should be based more on a match between your needs and an ability to both engage and disengage emotionally, time you can commit, your skillset and the needs of the people you want to help.

I changed organizations several times, with some difficulty, before I found my best fit. That's ok. It's nice to be around people that give a shit
posted by vapidave at 3:30 PM on May 26, 2014 [2 favorites]

Donating blood is a very clear cut and important service. Lives really are saved.
posted by saradarlin at 3:56 PM on May 26, 2014 [2 favorites]

Find a nonprofit you want to survive and help them write and manage funding proposals. So many amazing front line staff are bogged down in this work, and they're not successful and their jobs are threatened by a lack of funding because they are amazing frontline staff, not writers or admins. The time they spend on this is time away from clients.

Core funding is so hard to come by and if you can help a nonprofit get a stable base of funding or a bit that will tide them over so they can avoid layoffs and cancelling projects midstream -- or (now I'm dreaming!) new hires so the current staff don't burn out, you will be a godsend, praised through the ages.

I'm totally serious. I can't think of a single organization who doesn't need this. I can think of many (and have worked in one) that have died without this help. We need you.
posted by heatherann at 4:01 PM on May 26, 2014 [7 favorites]

Best answer: I too came to recommend being a CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate). I was a Big Sister to the same child from age 8-16 (with a short break when her family moved temporarily) and it was both challenging and rewarding. However, when my Little moved, I specifically sought out a different program that I believed would have a bigger impact, and being a CASA definitely fit that bill. In the case I worked on the longest, I provided emotional support to a teenage girl for about 3 years, as she was bounced between numerous foster homes and relatives' homes. I advocated for her in court, attended her school meetings (almost always as the sole adult appearing for her), helped facilitate medical, dental and psychological care, took her to get her learner's permit, celebrated her birthdays with her, and attended her birth father's funeral with her. This girl aged out of the foster care system some years ago and we eventually lost touch. However, just the other day, the girl tracked down my work number (she remembered I own my company and what kind of business I'm in), and she called me specifically to thank me for everything I had done for her. In her words, I cared more about her and tried to help her more than anyone ever had, and she still thinks about me regularly. This was after about four years of no contact.

So yeah, the CASA program is pretty boss. :)
posted by justonegirl at 4:45 PM on May 26, 2014 [18 favorites]

I took a fundraising class once, and something the instructor said still resonates with me, years later. She explained that everyone has a cause that is near and dear to them, it just might not be one that we share. She told us to encourage people to GIVE, whether to our personal causes or not. If people decline to give to our cause, it is not exactly a rejection; as long people are giving, they are making a difference, whether or not we personally see or understand that difference.

That perspective may apply to your question: GIVE of yourself in volunteer or service work. You only have a finite amount of time and effort to give, so give it in a manner that matters somehow to you. Impact and meaning are far-reaching and cannot always be quantified, but when people give, it matters to us all in the end.
posted by Boogiechild at 5:48 PM on May 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

This resonated for me, in that my worry about doing the "best" thing possible stopped me for years from doing anything at all, because I constantly worried that I could be wasting my time because a "better" thing to do might come along.

It wasn't until I got over that and started doing something I was actually passionate about (prison antiviolence work) that I realized I was being silly. There is no "best" thing, there are many problems and many solutions, and you should pursue something that calls to you.
posted by zug at 5:54 PM on May 26, 2014 [6 favorites]

The greatest impact in service work tends to come from the most trained person doing the thing in which they are trained using the least resources (most importantly, staff time) possible.

In a lot of organizations, volunteers want to do glam-type jobs for which they have no previous specialized training, and organizations that accommodate them tend to run their volunteer programs at an actual net loss to productivity, because they're wasting a lot of staff hours training and supervising unskilled volunteers rather than doing the skilled work themselves.

So, in my ethical calculus, to have the most impact one should donate money (as d.z. wang said) so that agencies can afford the trained staff can do the skilled work; volunteer for the unglamorous unskilled work, like filing and mailings, so that the trained staff has more time to do the skilled work; use one's own professional skills, credentials, or training to do skilled work that does not need to be highly supervised by other trained staff; or combine options one and three and use one's professional knowledge and contacts to sit on the board of a non-profit and help them raise money.
posted by jaguar at 6:34 PM on May 26, 2014 [3 favorites]

The two volunteer things that are closest to my heart are organ donation advocacy (having fact based conversations about organ donation) and being a literacy tutor for adult learners (using patience and a specific workbook geared toward the learning style and ability of the learner, which are determined before you even meet the learner).

Both organizations need people like us not just to go talk to people, but also to (as mentioned above) stuff envelopes and answer phones to take messages. To write grants and sort/inventory promotional materials and a thousand other tasks that seem so mundane.
posted by bilabial at 6:48 PM on May 26, 2014

"The greatest impact in service work tends to come from the most trained person doing the thing in which they are trained using the least resources (most importantly, staff time) possible."

"Work" is the operative word there. I can't disagree with this more as regards volunteering. Service workers are paid, it's a job. Volunteers are not paid.

I was a volunteer for almost a year and half post Katrina, working for free, and saw many " trained person[s]" and the organizations they drew their paychecks from struggle for beaucratic control. It was grotesque. Every struggle was exacarbated because of "most trained person" whether from FEMA, USAID, Road Home, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Habitat for Humanity and every other GO, NGO struggling for funds and control.

jaguar you are confusing working for pay, "service work" with volunteer work.
posted by vapidave at 7:23 PM on May 26, 2014

jaguar you are confusing working for pay, "service work" with volunteer work.

I have done, and continue to do, paid service work and volunteer work. I am not confusing anything; issues with bureaucracies and jurisdiction are a separate issue, and volunteers assuming they understand high-level advocacy issues is another aspect of the problem.

This blog post does a great job at explaining some of the quasi-colonialism that can interfere with work getting done; volunteers assuming that their mere presence ("And I'm not even being paid!") is a godsend to an organization, or to the people being served, is a major issue that tends to tilt volunteer work toward making privileged volunteers feel good about themselves rather than doing actual service for people (or animals, communities, etc.) in need.
posted by jaguar at 8:28 PM on May 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

The world is big and full of suffering and need. How can you prioritize suffering? People will tell you to do something you are passionate about or enjoy so that you are more likely to stick with whatever you decide.
posted by BusyBusyBusy at 7:50 AM on May 27, 2014

« Older Help me setup my old Droid Razr as a music player...   |   Please help me identify these two places in... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.