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Volunteering: How to Lose the Excuses and Get Started

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Does making new friends, boosting your self-confidence, connecting with your community, and getting in good with the universe entice you? If so, you need to start volunteering. We all have a million excuses not to volunteer, from diapering our French bulldogs to refurbishing our patio furniture. But the truth is, the social and personal benefits of volunteering are unparalleled.


Unfortunately, the trickiest part is to find the motivation to get our sweatpants-clad booties off the sofa and into our communities. Most of us offer the same kinds of excuses for not helping others. However, if we stop and think about our reasons for not taking action, it becomes clear that we absolutely can and should volunteer. The next time we find ourselves falling into these six negative mindsets, we should repurpose them as motivational tools instead.


1. I have no time/I’m so incredibly busy.
This is the most common excuse people give when asked why they do not volunteer. First of all, if we were all really as busy as we pretend to be, we would barely make it to the bathroom on a daily basis. Get started by picking apart your week. How many hours do you watch TV? Can you donate two of those hours to your community? Consider starting small. Pick one Saturday, Sunday, or evening a month to volunteer. Look at your priorities and evaluate how you spend your time. How much of your week is dedicated to giving back to your community?


2. I’m so tired after working 9 to 5, Monday through Friday.
Getting out of your apartment, interacting with others, and actually doing something besides watching America’s Next Top Model marathons on VH-1 every weeknight will reenergize you. You’ll become more centered and cultivate a greater sense of purpose in your life. It’s like working out; we all complain we’re too lazy and tired to work out, but once we get in the habit of it, it becomes an invigorating part of our lifestyle. 


3. I don’t have anybody to go with me.
You know that girlfriend who always says you never have time for her? Bring her. Bring your mother, bring your partner, or bring your pessimistic coworker. Think of it as an opportunity to reconnect with your favorite people in a way that doesn’t include spending money. Better yet, do it alone. You’ll definitely meet other fascinating individuals with similar interests. My friend Sara met her fiancé when volunteering at Houston’s Superdome after Hurricane Katrina. If you’re in a new city and looking to meet new people, volunteering is an amazing way to make connections.


4. I don’t care about helping other people; nobody helps me.
Take this opportunity to affect your karma. Karma is the belief that, for every good or bad thing you do, something good or bad will come back to you. If you start helping others, maybe somebody will notice your unique radiance and help you. If it worked in the days of ancient Hinduism and Buddhism, it will surely work today.


5. Tell the homeless to get off their butts and get a job.
I can’t convince you in one sentence that it just isn’t that simple for a homeless person to pick up and get a 9 to 5 job. Why not volunteer at a shelter and meet some homeless people? Ask them how they became homeless. I bet your attitude toward homelessness will change.


6. I can’t make a difference; I’m only one person.
Yes. You. Can. In the words of renowned anthropologist Margaret Mead, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”


It is abundantly clear that we have no real excuses to not volunteer. Now all we need is to identify how to get started.


Shelby Jennings, an avid volunteer since childhood, turned her passion for serving up some love to her community into a career. She moved to Washington, DC from San Diego, California in order to work for the Corporation for National and Community Service. She lent us her expert advice on how to start volunteering. “Find a place where you will use your skills, learn new ones, or learn about a new issue. Figure out not only what you want to get out of it, but also what you want to give back—this will help you sustain your efforts. Commit yourself to a timeline—stick to it. Also, if you have a particular cause or organization you’re interested in, just ask!” Shelby also advocated volunteering in fields that you’re interested in working in as a resume builder or in a position where you could build skills that could help you get a job in the future.


Sometimes the sheer number of organizations that need volunteers can be daunting. A simple three-step process to figure out the best way to commit ourselves to helping others can help ease any overwhelming feelings.


1. Choose causes that make you excited.
If you love to travel, volunteer with an international organization; if you love to garden, find an environmental organization; if you adore spending time with kids, volunteer to tutor students. There is an abundance of need for your expertise, time, and love all over your community.


2. Find events that match your needs.
After you have selected the type of organization you wish to volunteer for, choose a specific opportunity that fits your skills, interests, and schedule. Once you find a non-profit that fits you, go ahead and introduce yourself.


3. Surf the Internet to find out what’s out there.
Volunteermatch.com is an incredible Web site to start your volunteering endeavors. They have an immense online network of organizations eager for your help. It is incredibly simple to register and begin your search immediately. If you register with an organization through VolunteerMatch, an automatic email will be sent to that organization notifying them of your interest. They will then contact you and you will be on your way. A great feature of VolunteerMatch is the ability to be a virtual volunteer. The Virtual section offers volunteer opportunities from your home or desk. That means you can volunteer using your computer, Internet connection, phone, and/or fax.


1800volunteer.com is another outstanding Web site to embark on your quest for volunteer opportunities. You can start by searching for volunteer opportunities that match your interests. Next, you create a free account that enables you to easily sign up for volunteer opportunities. And finally, you can start volunteering!


Volunteer centers will hook you up! The best part is that pretty much every city has one. Google your city’s volunteer center, call them up, tell them you’re interested, set up a meeting, and you’ll be on your way. They are knee-deep in your community and keenly aware of the opportunities available to you.


We all lead lives full of commuting, conference calls, and social engagements. But imagine how much better we’d feel if we dedicated just a few hours out of our hectic schedules to causes that truly need our help. Some people are driven by selfless ambition. Some are on a quest for social equity, or want to bring a sense of purpose and fulfillment to their own lives. Others view the opportunity to volunteer as a chance to give back to their community. However we find the motivation, volunteering has the potential to improve our lives and the world around us.


Photo courtesy of the author


Updated December 15, 2008

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