As winter approaches and I wind down my regular visits to the wildlife rehabilitation center for another year, I am inspired to write about the impact of volunteers. I am not a volunteer expert, and never mind that there are already a few other (several hundred thousand) Google results for how to be a good volunteer. As someone with a bird’s eye view of how the volunteer process affects the organization and enough life experience to shine the spotlight on why it’s good to do more than just show up, I’d like to add another cookie to the Google search result cookie jar.
Many organizations like the wildlife rehabilitation center, a not-for-profit group, are heavily dependent on their volunteers. At a minimum, they need people who show up and can follow basic rules. The ones who show up with a willing spirit and proactively help operations run like a well-oiled machine are the volunteer icing on the cake.
Let’s say we’ve already established the self-interest part of signing up to volunteer, which I believe is important. There is nothing wrong at all with a scoop or two of self-serving motivation and personal interest. It’s why you are willing to show up and do something in the first place! The recipients of your efforts get a big benefit too of course, so it’s a win-win for everyone. Great! Now, to make volunteer icing:
Be proactive – If you finish a task early, look for something else to do with the time to which you committed. Find someone to ask what you can do next. If you can’t find someone, identify something to stay active and engaged. At the wildlife center, this may mean washing dishes, folding towels, or wiping down counter tops. Pick up a manual and refresh your memory of activities and rules, it may inspire a new idea for you to suggest. There is always something to do.
Why? When everyone’s time is at a premium, others will admire your initiative. You’ll earn a reputation as a doer. You are much more likely to get a recommendation from the staff that supports your claim as a go-getter with examples when you need references.
Be flexible – There are activities at which we may excel or naturally like to do more than others, and while there is nothing wrong with voicing your preferences, it makes good business sense to give your time and energy willingly to where it matters most.
Why? Offering up your skills elsewhere and making yourself available will undoubtedly garner appreciation from the staff and others that you are someone willing to help do what it takes to get the job done. You may meet new people and learn new skills. It’s easy to want to go for the fun stuff an organization may have to offer, but you will be respected for being an agreeable team player by helping out elsewhere, too.
Be accountable – If you can’t make your commitment to help, give the staff advance notice whenever possible. Do your best each time in all that you do, even when performing less-than-glamorous work. On an altruistic note, consider the kind of support you’d hope for if you were on the receiving end of someone else’s goodwill. While a volunteer may be free labor, the organization still needs support to get the work done with quality and efficiency. Be as professional and accountable as if you were collecting a paycheck.
Why? You’ll earn a reputation as someone who cares about the organization, the recipients of the support that the organization provides, and your own personal contributions. Others will view you as proficient and trustworthy, which may earn you additional privileges, higher levels of responsibility, and possibly paid employment. Last but certainly not least, you will simply feel good about your efforts.
This is not an exhaustive list of good traits to have as a volunteer but rather some behaviors that I’ve seen make a real impact on the success of an organization in a day, a week, a month, and a year. Have fun doing doing good stuff with good people for a good cause? Yep, that’s a win-win.