For Volunteers, Giving Isn't Thankless

A little volunteer labor can make a huge difference

Gracia Valliant reads to a boy
Flickr
Yes, I'll admit it, I'm one of those annoying do-gooders who signs up for everything. I'm patting myself on the back just by writing this! But that's just one of the many different reasons people volunteer. Businesses often engage in -- buzzword alert -- "Corporate Social Responsibility" to enhance their image for customers and stockholders. Jobseekers volunteer to add some "current activity" to their LinkedIn profiles. Guys want to meet girls; others hope to find favor with a higher power; and networking, always networking: All common motives for people to roll up their sleeves and lend a hand.

But you know what? It doesn't matter in the slightest why you decide to volunteer. There isn't a "correct" reason. All that counts is the outcome: A worthy organization is getting the help they desperately need. Non-profits, charities, and cultural groups are often on shoestring budgets with skeleton staffs. For them, a little volunteer labor can make a huge difference.

But I don't have time!

OK, maybe you don't have time to volunteer -- that's totally reasonable. Between work and family, it can often seem like there just isn't a spare minute. But in many cases, volunteering is something you can do with the family. And you don't have to think of it as a massive time commitment. Most places are thrilled -- and extremely appreciative -- to get an hour or two of your assistance. Skip one episode of Duck Dynasty and maybe a little time on the PS4, and you're all set.

For the overscheduled person, your job can be an excellent resource for volunteer opportunities -- sometimes during work hours. And it's not a bad way to impress your higher-ups (demonstrating corporate spirit, building teamwork, yadda-yadda). When I left my office job to begin freelancing, I really missed some of those extra-curricular activities: deputy fire warden, promoting blood drives, helping organize the AIDS Walk, etc. So stepping up volunteer efforts in my self-employed life has really helped fill the gap.

Renewed sense of self

And, hypothetically speaking, let's say you're... we'll call it... underemployed. It can get pretty demoralizing after a while. The sweatpants, couch, flat-screen, bag of Cheetos -- all very tempting. Volunteering is a terrific way to take up some of those empty hours. You can renew your sense of self -- your sense of purpose. And really, who had a more fulfilling day-someone mindlessly staring at an Excel spreadsheet, waiting for 5 o'clock, or the person sorting donations at the local Food Bank? Who made more of a meaningful impact? Hint: It wasn't the Cheetos guy.
Super Agers
AP/Spencer Green


Great, you've decided to give volunteering a go. Now you just need to choose where. Think about what you enjoy. I like books, so I became a "Friend of the Hoboken Public Library." I also like old-timey things, so I put in some hours at the Hoboken Historical Museum. What are your passions: Sports? Food? Education? Health? Technology? Whatever you're into, somebody in your area who's doing some good could probably use a little help. (Retirees swear by this method.)

So how do you find them?

If you're aware of great organizations in your area, go to their website or give them a call. Ask at your school, church/synagogue, library, senior center, local museum, soup kitchen, city hall, or your human-resources manager. Or another fantastic place to start is volunteermatch.org. You enter your location and your interests and they help set you up!

And sometimes there's a cause that hits close to home. Ever notice how athletes' "foundations" often focus on an ailment endured by someone in their own family? The truth is, there are many tough situations that we don't give much thought to until it personally affects us. For me, a definite example was Superstorm Sandy. I had volunteered here in Hoboken, New Jersey, in the days after the storm hit, and then a couple of months later, I signed up for our Community Emergency Response Team. I expected a handful of people at the first training session, but the room was packed. They asked how many had volunteered during Sandy, and a whole lot of us raised our hands.

That word "community" is really at the heart of volunteering. There's certainly a social aspect -- it can be a lot of fun to pitch in with others -- and finally meet your neighbors. It creates a real bond, a true feeling of camaraderie. Someday you might be the person in need, and you feel totally confident that someone else would step up to help you.

It's kind of cool -- walking around town these days, I run into so many more people that I know, from one volunteering scenario or another. OK, if I'm rushing to the movies or something, the constant stop-and-chats can get a little frustrating. Still, that's nothing compared to the genuine sense of community that volunteering brings.

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