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The Cost of Volunteering

Secrets from Behind the Nonprofit Desk

I am the Brazilian program director of Amizade, a nonprofit organization that puts together volunteer programs. Many people call our office looking for volunteer possibilities that do not cost an arm and a leg.

First of all, you should know that volunteering costs money. Even when you volunteer for an organization in your community, you have expenses. For example, when you volunteer at a local animal shelter or literacy program, does the organization pay for your transportation? Your meals? Your rent? Your health insurance? Probably not. When you volunteer overseas, you cannot expect the organization to pay for these things either. When looking for a volunteer opportunity, keep in mind you will probably have to pay for your own airfare and room and board.

A variety of sources are available to help you find volunteer opportunities. The best are your library and the Internet. Alternatives to the Peace Corps, How to Live Your Dream of Volunteering Overseas, and Volunteer Vacations: Short-Term Adventures That Will Benefit You and Others are resource books that you can find at most libraries. They list a variety of organizations looking for volunteers of all types. Explain to your local librarian what you want to do, and he or she should be able to provide you with plenty of information.

Some of the best sources of volunteer information on the Internet include: Action Without Borders, www.idealist.org; GuideStar, www.guidestar.org; Volunteer Match, www.volunteermatch.org; SERVEnet, www.servenet.org; Best Bets for Volunteering Abroad, www.cie.uci.edu/prospective/iopother/volunteer.shtml; International Volunteer Programs, www.volunteerinternational.org, and TransitionsAbroad.com's resource page on volunteering abroad.

Other sources include your local church or temple. Also, talk to your local Rotary, Lions, Kiwanis, and Optimists clubs. They do a lot of international work and have connections overseas. Furthermore, many provide financial assistance to volunteers abroad. If you don’t have the time to do the research yourself, an organization such as the Catholic Volunteer Network; info@catholicvolunteernetwork.org, www.catholicvolunteernetwork.org will help you find a volunteer placement for a nominal fee.

When applying to volunteer with an organization, be very specific about the kind of service you can provide them. Many people call me up and say, “I just want to help.” This is a very pleasant sentiment, but when I ask, “What can you do?” many respond with, “I don’t know, what do you need?”

Just because you want to help doesn’t mean that you can. Many nonprofit organizations are underfunded, understaffed, and overworked. You must prove to the organization that you will be an asset—and not a drain—by convincing them that you understand their needs and have the skills and ability to truly help them.

It is not a wise idea to quit your job with the idea of volunteering right away. Finding a volunteer position overseas takes time. You must be persistent and patient. There is a reason why there is such a long period of time between when you apply, get accepted, and actually join the Peace Corps. Wisely, they want to ensure that your commitment to volunteering is genuine and not just a whim. It is neither fair to the people you are volunteering with nor to yourself if you are not serious about your commitment to serve.

If you have already made plans to travel, work, or study abroad, and you want to volunteer as well, I suggest bringing your resume and a generic cover letter with you. To find volunteer opportunities when in a foreign country, go to the local church or synagogue. Even though you may not be of the same faith, these institutions are often familiar with local health, education, and welfare organizations. Again, you may want to try the local Rotary, Kiwanis, and Lions Clubs—international organizations with chapters all over the world.

Volunteering should be fun and rewarding. Go with an open mind and an open heart; you will return enriched with a better understanding of yourself and the world around you.

Daniel Weiss received his PhD in Educational Policy from the Univ. of Minnesota. He is the founder of Amizade.