At a Glance: When looking for a volunteer position, consider the why, who, what, where and when to make sure you’re making a commitment you can feel great about.
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It can be hard to stick with something you want to do but don’t think you have time for. Similar to an exercise routine or a cleaning regimen at home, we often start with good intentions but quickly veer off the path. The same is true when it comes to giving back.

Avoid the start-stop cycle with these five simple steps to choose the right volunteer opportunity for you:

Why?

People volunteer for all different kinds of reasons — to get to know their community, to have an impact, to gain new skills, to help the environment, guilt, as therapy, for religious reasons. Whatever your motivation, identifying ‘why’ you want to volunteer is a critical step. Write it down in your planner or on your phone to remind yourself what got you started down this path in the first place.

Who?

Do you want to volunteer alone? With your family or a few friends? Should you give back to your community alongside your neighbors or co-workers? Deciding the ‘who’ may not seem important, but it can make or break your experience. So choose wisely. And don’t be afraid to change course if the group isn’t working for you.

What?

This is the toughest step for most people. There are so many ways to give back that it can be hard to pick a volunteer opportunity that fits your life and goals. Start by writing down a few broad categories you’re passionate about, such as helping animals, feeding the homeless, enhancing your neighborhood or working with senior citizens. From there, drill down into more specific activities you could do to support those causes: walking dogs at a local animal shelter, delivering meals to elderly people who are homebound or picking up trash at your neighborhood park. The more specific you can be, the better. The best way to volunteer is to match your passions and personality.

Where?

Now that you have a better idea of the ‘what,’ it’s time to get detailed about the ‘where’. Get recommendations from friends or neighbors about organizations they love. Visit one of the many volunteer matching websites available for both local and national charities. Research an organization you’re interested in and follow their application guidelines.

If you have kids at home or don’t have access to easy transportation, explore the many ways you can volunteer from your home, such as making fundraising phone calls for a local homeless shelter or writing educational materials about bee-friendly gardening. Pick an organization and a location that works best for you.

When?

Efficiency is good in life and work. So it makes sense that being an efficient volunteer is a winning proposition. Be very honest with yourself about how much time you can dedicate to volunteering. Start small — both in project size and time commitment, for example, shoveling snow for an elderly neighbor — then work your way up. Think about the days and times during the week that work best you, and make sure the volunteer opportunities you pursue align with that timing.

As with a job or a personal endeavor, it’s most important to do your research, honor your commitments, be professional and respectful, and bring compassion and flexibility to your volunteerism. Think about what’s best for others and the organization you’re working with, and the rest will fall into place.


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