Creating a Meaningful Volunteer Experience – From HS to Retirement

Make A Difference with a meaningful volunteer experienceLast week there was an article in the New York Times (an Op-Ed by Frank Bruni) titled, “To Get to Harvard, Go to Haiti?”  Through a conversation with a 17 year-old, followed up by interviews with admission officers, Bruni questions the impact of these week-long ‘mission trips’ to Central America and Africa. Or, maybe, the interviewees are questioning the meaningful volunteer experience (and the new genre of college-application essays they inspire).

Do they help the student learn more about volunteering than he or she could by working with underserved youth at a local Boys & Girls Club?

The article implies no, and I would agree.  Those of us who work with nonprofits understand the problem.  Volunteering for twenty hours on a big, flashy nonprofit gala will not connect anyone to a homeless shelter in the same way that working in the soup kitchen would. At the same time, both may profess a strong connection to the organization and, ideally, enjoy their volunteer experience. And both help the organization in their own way.

It begs the question, how do you create a meaningful volunteer experience whether the person is 17, 77, or anywhere in between?  Each nonprofit should consider:

  • Is the work interesting to the volunteer? Interest may be based on the type of work, alongside whom they are volunteering , or where it is located. Are you in need of help stuffing envelopes, organizing a high profile event or helping the board with a particular skill.
  • Will the volunteer feel like he or she made an impact? Seeing a broken down playground transform over a week-long trip shows how she or he made a difference.  But, the same can be said about a fabulous event. Or reading a letter from a parent thanking a volunteer for their role in his child’s life. Or seeing the barometer move up on a fundraising campaign in which a person has been working as a volunteer solicitor.
  • How many volunteers can the nonprofit supervise? Training, a direct connection with staff and supervisors, and a clear understanding of what is expected for each volunteer helps form the experience. The more complicated the opportunity (think of a docent), the more the nonprofit will gain from volunteerism.  But, more involvement will require more involvement from staff (or an even more experienced volunteer).
  • How many hours do you need each volunteer to commit to? Do you need a week-long intensive volunteer to build a house or two hours a week on a consistent basis mentoring someone to enhance their literacy?  Maybe you require a lot of different people to help collect and organize food during a two-hour shift once a year?  Be honest about your needs and ask volunteers to be as honest as they can be about the time they can offer.

While they may initionally be using a trip as a way to fulfill required volunteer hours, students who go around the world to volunteer may realize they love working with youth.  Or they may just love helping others.  For many, it may be the first time the spirit of voluntarism was introduced into their lives that is not orchestrated by parents.  And, that will spark a new generation of volunteers for all kinds of nonprofits.