I have been a volunteer many times over the years. I volunteered for parent/school activities when my children were young and career-related professional activities. Canvassing for organizations like the Canadian Cancer Society made the list because they asked nicely. When I was approaching retirement, I decided to look for volunteering opportunities that were personally enriching as well as giving back. What I discovered was a good deal more complex than I had imagined and finding the right opportunity was challenging. Here is what I discovered.
Decide What You Want To Get Out Of Volunteering
A very wise friend told me that this is where everyone should begin when you are looking for a place to volunteer. It seems counter-intuitive as volunteering is about giving back but I have come to realize that the most effective volunteers are those for whom the opportunity fills a need.
First, I made a list of what I wanted to get out of volunteering. I wanted a volunteer opportunity that would be intellectually challenging and would let me explore subjects that interested me. A volunteer activity that involved fundraising was not what I wanted. I already had put in my dues selling wrapping paper, Girl Guide cookies, and various other sundries.
Previously I was a volunteer with an organization that worked on literacy skills with disadvantaged children. I went into an elementary school and worked one on one with individual children. It was enjoyable however, I realized that for this stage in my life I wanted to work with a group of like-minded fellow volunteers.
How Much Time?
It’s important to note the time commitment required. How many hours per week? Per year? How much time is required for training? Many museums require volunteers to train over a long period of time; others will have minimal training. You need to find a good fit for your personal schedule. I had a pretty open schedule but wanted to make sure I had the flexibility to take time off for travel.
What’s Out There?
Some of the volunteer opportunities are routine. You put in your x hours each week or month and then you are done. There is not a lot of contact with other volunteers. I understand that volunteering at the local food banks fits this model but it really wasn’t what I was looking for.
Many of the charity thrift shops operate entirely with volunteers. While I suspected they would provide the collegial group I was looking for, the thought of pricing vintage clothing and china teacups filled me with dread.
Many cities will have a website that lists volunteer opportunities and will provide a pretty clear description of the kind of volunteer they are looking for. Asking friends and family is also a good way to find opportunities.
I discovered that some organizations have a staff member or even department that is responsible for volunteers.
Another model is the self-governing volunteer organization that is associated with the parent body. These are often recognized by having “Friends of….” as part of their name. Libraries, which generally do not use volunteers as their staff is unionized, often have an associated organization called “Friends of the X Public Library”. As these are self-governing organizations, there is more opportunity for volunteers to direct their own activities. However, many of these are fundraising organizations, which knocked them off my list.
I thought that museums might fill the bill and began exploring. It was astonishing to discover that most of the museums I looked at only recruited volunteers once a year. If you miss the cut-off date for that year’s recruitment, you need to wait a calendar year to apply.
You Have To Apply….And You Might Not Be Selected
Many organizations have a rigorous selection process similar to applying for a job. You submit an application and resume. Then you will participate in a complete interview process before being accepted. Quite often an organization might be looking for a specific educational background or skill set. You may need to undergo a Criminal Records Check as part of the screening process.
So How Did It Work Out For Me?
Really, really well! It took me over a year as I missed one whole recruitment cycle but I did find a wonderful volunteer opportunity with the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia. It ticked all the boxes – no fundraising, many learning opportunities, and like-minded colleagues. The volunteers are a self-governing association and provide a wide array of learning opportunities for the volunteers. For the first four months, I trained and now I am training on new programs.
I give weekly programs to school children, who are absolutely delightful (mostly) and have made a new circle of like-minded friends. It is inspiring to learn about museum practices and First Nations – I have heard inspiring talks from hereditary chiefs, examined weavings in the museum’s storage with a noted Haida weaver, and watched renowned Haida artist Jim Hart carve the reconciliation pole that is now standing at UBC. I feel very fortunate indeed….and I get time off for travel!