Non-Profit Coordinators Give Us The 411 On How To Volunteer Like A Pro

Sure, volunteering might be about donating your time and talents to an organization or cause that you love. But if you play your cards right, you can get just as much out of being a volunteer as you give. Some superstar volunteers, like Danielle Vincent, an entrepreneur and creator of Outlaw Soaps, were even able to leverage their experiences into a killer J-O-B. After volunteering as a coordinator at Burning Man for a few years, she became so indispensable, that the organizers behind the famous arts-in-the-desert fest started paying her to come back and help run the commissary.

So what sets the sea of nameless volunteers apart from those who score recommendation letters and job offers? We talked to Vincent and Reva Ferguson, an operations manager and volunteer coordinator with the Southern California-based Search Dog Foundation (an organization that partners dogs with first responders to help find people buried alive in disaster wreckage), to get the scoop on how to volunteer like a champ:

1. DO YOUR HOMEWORK. Ferguson, who coordinates about 100 volunteers for the Search Dog Foundation, says the best volunteers are those who learn about the organization before showing up for a shift. She suggests reading the organization’s website to learn about its mission statement, history, and recent work. “It really helps when people already know about the driving force behind the work when they walk in the door,” she says. “As a coordinator, it saves me a lot of time, since I don’t have to explain the why behind every little thing. Knowledgeable volunteers can better converse with the public, write better thank you letters to donors, and do better work in general.”

2. SHOW UP ON TIME, EVERY TIME.  Vincent maintains that the key to standing out as a volunteer is easier than you think: simply show up on time for every shift. “Many volunteers come and go–they’re drifters,” she points out. “But if you show up with clockwork precision and dependability–that is gold.” When you show up on time, Vincent suggests reporting for duty by stating, “I’m here for my four o’clock shift because I said I would be here at four.” This helps show your supervisor that you’re ready to rock and following through before your shift even starts. Finally, before you clock out for the day, check in with your supervisor again to see whether she’d like you there at the same time for the next shift, earlier or later. “This says ‘I’m a part of a schedule and I want you to depend on me,’ which in turn, leads to being given more responsibility,” Vincent says.

3. SHARE YOUR TALENT. Some volunteer gigs will simply need bodies to work the registration table or pass out t-shirts. But many organizations can really benefit from the special brand of expertise that only you can bring to the table. “I get really excited when I can utilize a volunteer in the capacity in which they have expertise,” Ferguson says, “that way, they can really step into a role without needing a lot of help.” For example, if you have a knack for graphic design, volunteer to make flyers.

“Just be sure you’re offering to do something you’ll enjoy,” warns Vincent. “When it comes to volunteering, you might as well do something that you enjoy, rather than what you’re already trained in but may not like as much,” she says. “Because you never know what next career move might come out of that discovery.”

4. BE PROACTIVE. Ask any volunteer coordinator which traits rule when it comes to volunteers and most will say: proactive, self-starters who can problem solve in a flash. Why? Volunteer coordinators are often very busy (especially during events) while organizations are often strapped for helping hands. This creates chaotic situations in which it helps for volunteers to dive in and take initiative. “If you see something that needs to be done, then do it. Take initiative,” says Ferguson. Vincent, who has also coordinated volunteers for various fundraisers agrees, saying, “Unless your coordinator likes to micromanage, be decisive and solve problems. For me, as a coordinator, if a problem is addressed without me having to know about it in the first place, that is beyond helpful.”

5. KEEP COMING BACK FOR MORE. The more regularly you show up to a volunteer gig, the more you show your dependability. This doesn’t mean you have to volunteer every single day. Simply pick a schedule and stick to it, so your coordinator knows she can depend on you. This, says Vincent, was another key to turning her volunteer job into a paid position at Burning Man. “I was too dependable to be a volunteer anymore,” she says. “The coordinators felt bad. Because I was always on time and did what people asked of me, the organizers offered me a highly paid position, just to keep doing what I had been doing free of charge.” Vincent also notes that often times, ethical nonprofits will have at least a few people on the payroll–and often these organizations hire from within.