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How to fit volunteering into a hectic schedule

There are so many ways to make a difference, even when your time is tight.

Illustration of a woman working at a desk while she rocks a cradle with her foot. Getty Images/iStockphoto
Rachel DuRose is a Future Perfect fellow, covering climate change, housing, mental health, and more. Rachel previously wrote about the workplace, hiring, and executive leadership for Business Insider.

Six out of ten US households donate to charity every year. Yet, under a quarter of Americans volunteered their time in 2021, according to a joint report from AmeriCorps and the US Census Bureau.

Donating is a great way to help your community, but volunteering can help you truly become a part of it. Its benefits extend beyond those who are helped: In a post-lockdown world — where 58 percent of adults report feeling lonely — volunteering could cement much-needed connections. Additionally, research shows volunteering actually boosts our overall physical and mental health and increases our sense of pride, motivation, and support.

“What brings me back here every single day is really the people,” said Juliana Soltys, a former volunteer and now the volunteer manager at Haley House, a Boston-based nonprofit that runs a soup kitchen, cooking classes, affordable housing units, and more for houseless individuals. “Every individual volunteer matters to us and we are just very grateful to have them in our space and getting to know them on a more personal level as well.”

But despite the very real need and the potential benefits for all involved, volunteering isn’t as popular as it used to be. Since 2000, the number of Americans volunteering fell, reports the Chronicle of Philanthropy. Between 2003 and 2005, more than 28 percent of Americans volunteered, according to the Do Good Institute. By the end of 2020, that number dwindled to less than 25 percent. 2020, of course, saw a decline in community participation due to the pandemic — but even now, in a post-pandemic world, nonprofits are struggling to find the necessary number of volunteers.

Volunteering can be a tough squeeze. For many, a lack of time or an inflexible schedule poses a hurdle. Then there’s the issue of finding an organization that aligns with your values. But the good news is volunteers are needed in so many different ways, from building homes to working from home. You don’t have to sacrifice other parts of your life to make an impact — you just need to be a bit creative to find the opportunities that fit your schedule, skills, and interests.

“I think too often we have misconceptions about volunteering,” Barbara Huelat, an author, hospice volunteer, and dementia caregiver, told Vox. “If you keep both your eyes and your heart open, you will see needs that need to be met, and it will bring you great joy to be able to jump in and do it.”

How do you find the right community?

Just like when you’re deciding where to send your money, selecting the organization or the causes you want to aid — animals in need, kids in under-served schools, people escaping domestic abuse — is the first step to getting involved.

When you donate money, you’re probably concerned about where that money goes, or if it’s doing the most good it possibly can. Those worries matter: The most effective charities produce 100 times as much benefit as the average organization, Future Perfect writers Dylan Matthews and Sigal Samuel previously reported. No one wants to feel like their money isn’t helping — or worse, wasted.

Online platforms like GiveWell and Charity Navigator can help you find top-rated organizations globally. If your priority is to make the most significant impact with your time, these websites could help guide you. (Disclosure: GiveWell is also an advertiser on Vox podcasts.)

Meanwhile, VolunteerMatch won’t necessarily help you identify the most effective organizations, but it does let you look for opportunities that fit your location, causes of interest, and skills (and it allows you to filter for remote options).

Sometimes other groups that you’re already a part of, like recreational sports teams or book clubs, can lead you to your volunteer community. Some of the largest sources of volunteers for Habitat for Humanity, a nonprofit organization that helps provide and build affordable homes, have been school groups and churches, said Boram Kim, the senior director of volunteer and institutional engagement at Habitat for Humanity International.

Let’s say you already know which organization you want to volunteer for, but feel hesitant because you’re not sure you have the skills needed to help. Reach out anyway, the experts Vox spoke to agreed.

For example, the task of building a home for Habitat for Humanity can seem daunting, especially if you’ve never even used a hammer. But there’s no reason to think you can’t help, Kim said. Prior to helping on a build, the organization ensures volunteers are trained and comfortable with the tasks they’ll be completing.

Similarly, new volunteers at Haley House receive a video orientation about what to expect before their first shift and at least one to two staff members work alongside the volunteers each shift to answer questions. When you’re volunteering, you’re never alone.

“Often people think they need special qualifications. They don’t,” said Randy Allison, a lifelong volunteer and founder of Alter X Company, an apparel company that donates 20 percent of its sales to a variety of causes. “Most often the greatest qualification is time and availability. Organizations need people to help fulfill their service-oriented mission often with limited financial and personnel resources to accomplish them.”

When it comes to volunteering, picking a cause you’re invested in is one step — the other is ensuring you’re comfortable with commitment. If you’re allergic to dogs, walking senior dogs at the shelter isn’t the best way to invest your time. Yes, there can be a lot of pressure to choose the most urgent issues, like gun violence or the opioid crisis. But ultimately, enjoying the work you’ll do is vital for maintaining the commitment to yourself and others

“I think one of the things you really have to do is be cognizant of what you want to do,” said Huelat. “You should really be finding what brings you joy, and what’s meaningful for you, and where your expertise is.”

How to make volunteering fit with your skills and schedule

When you hear the word “volunteering,” what comes to mind?

Maybe you picture the packed cafeteria of your local soup kitchen, or an afterschool program where tutors help young kids with their math and reading homework, or a team of red-vested disaster relief volunteers handing out supplies and looking for survivors after a hurricane.

Your vision probably does not include the work behind the scenes that funds that cafeteria, organizes those student-tutor matches, or assigns the Red Cross volunteers. Yet, every organization needs people to complete those tasks, and many of these tasks can be completed from anywhere and at any time. These opportunities while not as flashy, are necessary for organizations trying to do the most good with the resources they have.

“Volunteers are the backbone of every nonprofit organization,” said Joshua Fields, co-founder and CEO of the Next Step Programs, a nonprofit that works with young adults who have intellectual disabilities to help them transition out of high school. “Without the support and dedication of volunteers from the community, it would be impossible to make as big of an impact as many organizations do.”

For example, some Next Step Programs volunteers invest their time remotely, helping with fundraising or social media messaging. These posts help the organization attract donations and more volunteers, and still allow someone to connect and interact with the team remotely. “These types of tasks can be completed from the comfort of folks’ homes, and often time at one’s own schedule,” said Fields.

Similarly at Haley House, volunteers can help plan events, the organization’s annual concert fundraiser, and help with social media posts from anywhere in the world. Soltys says it’s just a matter of reaching out and finding the right place in the organization for the individual.

Other virtual volunteer opportunities include sending Christmas cards to deployed troops, becoming pen pals with someone who is incarcerated, or operating a mental health hotline.

The key when you’re new to volunteering is starting small. “I think a lot of people feel that they have to commit a ton of hours to an organization when they choose to volunteer,” said Fields. “What I have learned is that every person has different tools, strengths, and skills to share. Organizations often welcome volunteers in many different capacities, and will usually work with your schedules.”

Look at your calendar and figure out what day or days you have small chunks of time to spare. Maybe you’ll find a 30-minute window to make fundraising calls as you wait in the pickup line at your children’s school, or maybe you’ll discover that the library needs volunteers to read to the children who gather there. “Only commit to what you can safely fulfill,” Allison said. “Think about how you can best use and reorganize your time to give yourself more opportunities to serve.”

And if you can’t commit to any one organization or charity, maybe try helping someone more directly. These types of informal opportunities to help members of your community can easily be found in neighborhood social media pages, or through mutual aid hubs. Mutual aid involves community members coming together to address an issue as a collective, rather than individually. It can be as simple as sharing meals, teaching each other new skills, or pooling your resources to help members of the community purchase necessary medical treatments.

“An elderly woman in the neighborhood no longer drives, and I take her to get groceries, and not only does it help her get the groceries, but I spend time with her and she’s not lonely and she gets out,” said Huelat. “I think that’s probably the biggest need when we just see people that need assistance. It doesn’t have to be a formal organization.”

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