Optimal volunteering in NYC
August 8, 2015 4:37 AM   Subscribe

I'm a student in NYC. I'm looking to volunteer somewhere where my time will do the most possible good. Think "effective altruism" but with time instead of money, which I don't have.

I'm sick of feeling like a useless leech. I'm open to anything, and I don't care if I get to interact directly with the people who benefit. I'm not going to do well in a job that requires a lot of charisma or interpersonal skills, but I'm capable of normal social interactions.

Where in the city should I be volunteering? I just want to do something that is necessary or at least morally praiseworthy.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (11 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
A good general resource for someone looking to volunteer in NYC is New York Cares. You can search their database and filter on location, issue, time you're available and so on.
posted by sciencegeek at 4:55 AM on August 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

+1 for New York Cares. They are part of a national network of similar organizations, all based around the concept of flexible volunteering - give the time you can, when you can. That format allows you to shop around to various partner agencies to find one you really care about.
posted by Sweetie Darling at 5:09 AM on August 8, 2015

Are you a grad student? If so, and if 1:1 interactions fall into your definition of normal social interactions and you're prepared to make a multi-year commitment, Minds Matter and New York Needs You are two really great organizations.

I used to have similar feelings to yours about volunteering, and the number one most important thing for me to overcome them has been finding a gig that I can do for a long time. No matter what, you are always going to feel like a leech during the ramp up period in every gig, so if you pick one and stick with it you will attain the best ratio of useful to not-useful time. When you stay at a volunteering gig long enough to start training other volunteers (thereby reducing the training workload of employees) your impact can really multiply.
posted by telegraph at 5:19 AM on August 8, 2015

How about 826nyc.org? I volunteer with 826 in another state and so far it's been the most rewarding volunteer work I've done. I like knowing I'm helping kids get the reading and writing skills that will stay with them throughout school and beyond. Plus, I love that it encourages creative writing, not just the practical skills.
posted by Mouse Army at 5:43 AM on August 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

How about donating blood? It only takes a few hours every 56 days, but what I like best about it is that it is something that is absolutely needed and also won't take paid opportunities away from someone else, as opposed to something like doing some organization's filing. I give at the American Red Cross, but there's also the New York Blood Center, which I hear has a rewards program.
posted by unannihilated at 5:48 AM on August 8, 2015 [5 favorites]

If you're able to make a a years-long commitment, Girl Scouts always need more leaders in poor, black, and Latino neighborhoods. The GS year is about to start, so now would be a good time to join a troop as a co-leader.
posted by phunniemee at 6:00 AM on August 8, 2015

Seconding 826; volunteered there for years and it's great!
posted by ferret branca at 6:09 AM on August 8, 2015

I'm recommending NY Cares as well.

A few years ago I decided I want to volunteer with an organization I thought was doing incredibly important work. I went through an application process and because they only had volunteers during working hours I arranged things at my office so that I could volunteer a half day and make up the time at work.

However, I never felt that the work I did for them was all that important. Generally when I showed up I had to remind them that it was my day to volunteer, they would scramble to find something I could help on while I sat and waited (and waited), and I would wind up licking envelopes or something like that. It's a great organization but at that point they weren't using volunteers in the strategic way that I wanted my skills and abilities to be put to use.

When I volunteered with NY Cares, I was able to try a variety of projects. Some of them I felt were really important (environmental project in a bad part of Brooklyn), some not so much (reshelving books in a UES library), some were important but my work was not very hands-on (monitoring a computer lab while people without internet access at home checked emails and applied for jobs). I had several experiences that were very satisfying where I felt I made a difference.

So my suggestion is to try several different things with an organization like NY Cares - you can then decide where you are really adding the most value and volunteer regularly for that/those project(s).

Good luck!
posted by bunderful at 7:52 AM on August 8, 2015

Feeding America supports a number of food banks in NYC, like this one. Their featured projects section gives a good overview of the kinds of tasks they need volunteers for.
posted by Hermione Granger at 9:08 AM on August 8, 2015

What's your skill set and how much time are you willing to devote?

This is an important question. Are you familiar with 80,000 Hours? It's part of the effective altruism community focused on helping people choose the most effective career, but many of the same principles would apply to a volunteer as well. It's not just about choosing an effective organization to support, but what you can offer (coding, for example? social marketing?).
posted by three_red_balloons at 9:13 AM on August 8, 2015

another +1 for New York Cares -- I have volunteered with them for years and the flexibility of the opportunities to pitch in on is wonderful.
posted by lgandme0717 at 2:11 PM on August 8, 2015

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