how to find a great volunteer job

You should volunteer.  First, you should volunteer because it’s a good thing to do in the world, but secondly, you should volunteer because it can be good for your career: You’ll expand your network, get new things for your resume, and potentially learn new skills.

I got my first real job  by volunteering!  It sucked, as it turned out (see the bath towel story here), but still.

But while people often think it will be simple to find a taker for an offer of free work (who would turn down free help, after all?), finding a satisfying volunteer job isn’t always easy. Here are seven things that will help you find the right volunteer role for you.

1. Be realistic about how much time you have to devote to volunteering. Would-be volunteers often over-estimate how much time they’re willing or able to donate and make commitments they end up not keeping. Before an organization starts counting on your support, be sure you’re not being overly ambitious about the amount of time you’ll lend. You might want to start small and work your way up.

2. Realize that “free work” isn’t entirely free to the organization. People often think charities should accept any offers to volunteer, but in reality, supervising and training volunteers takes time and resources. So realize that not every charity is set up for volunteers, or prioritizes bringing them on board. Don’t be discouraged if you encounter that – just move on to a different group instead.

3. If a group seems disorganized or unwelcoming, move on. Some organizations say they want volunteers but are unprepared to actually utilize them or don’t appreciate their efforts. There are many, many worthy organizations that are grateful for volunteers and know how to use them; search out those instead.

4. Be straightforward about what you’d like to do. You’re most likely to end up with the type of volunteer assignment you’d like if you’re up-front about what type of work you’d like to do. For instance, say, “I’m hoping to use my background in writing and editing. Do you have volunteer opportunities involving those skills?” However…

5. Do be prepared for some menial work. Charities often use volunteers for jobs like stuffing envelopes, at least until those volunteers have proven themselves to be reliable. That’s because many volunteers flake out soon after signing up; in fact, many organizations say 50% or more of people who offer to volunteer never show up! So it’s understandable that nonprofits are often wary of handing off more important work until they know you better.

6. Don’t just look at large, established organizations. When you think of volunteering, you might think of established organizations that you’re familiar with. But such organizations are generally well staffed and may use volunteers only for small tasks like stuffing envelopes or data entry. By contrast, new and small organizations are hungry for help, and will often welcome volunteer assistance with substantive, meaty projects – from writing grant applications to organizing events. You’ll often get much more interesting experience at new, smaller organizations.

7. Check online volunteer resources for leads. Your city or county government may have an online database of local organizations’ volunteer needs, or check out for a wide range of volunteer jobs around the country.

I originally published this at U.S. News & World Report.

{ 36 comments… read them below }

  1. Kimberlee*

    Why on earth were they so attached to the word Groovy? It doesn’t enhance anything about the article… maybe the person who wrote the headline was just butt-hurt that you didn’t like it and clung to it out of pride? Ah, editorial drama. :)

    1. moe*

      Some weird alliteration (but not really) with the “v” in volunteer? is all I can think of.

      I did like the article a lot though!

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I don’t know! My editor is a normal person, so I’m not sure. Maybe just not wanting to set a precedent of letting their writers change headlines.

      1. Kelly O*

        I’m with you on the logic behind why it shouldn’t have changed. And for the record, even though I occasionally say “groovy” it’s usually with a heavy dose of irony or sarcasm.

  2. Rob*

    I earned my current job through volunteering.

    After I had to close my business, I had to start somewhere. I started volunteering for Habitat for Humanity outside of St. Louis and it eventually turned into a part time gig. Then I turned that into a full-time management position with Habitat for Humanity here in Pensacola.

    I never intended to stay on with HfH, but sometimes things have a funny way of working out that way ;)

    1. JustAQuestion*

      Rob, thank you for posting this really positive comment about volunteering! I’m genuinely delighted to learn that you were able to find a volunteer opportunity you enjoyed and par laid it into a full-time position.

      Again, I appreciate the sharing of this uplifting story. I will keep it in mind as I continue to volunteer and desperately try to avoid being frustrated by it.

  3. Arts Nerd*

    What groovy timing! Just today, my friend and I agreed on an appropriate volunteer position for me in his organization.

    Even though my job is demanding and I value my free time, this opportunity is worth the commitment to me. I’ve been unsuccessfully looking for another job for some months. With this, I can start building a portfolio of more innovative work than I can accomplish in my bureaucratic day job, build experience in high-demand skill sets, and expand my network. He in return, has someone whose judgment he trusts expanding his organization’s reach.

    And because this particular project is time-limited, if he and I don’t work well together there’s a natural end to the professional relationship.

  4. Lexy*

    Really… groovy? I’m sure you can’t/won’t speculate about exactly what their deal is. But… what is their deal?

    Is it a (not so) subtle jab at volunteer work being like “hippy” stuff? Because that is A) weird and B) wrong.


    Good article though!

  5. Dana*

    I laughed out loud at the title and imagining your “Please change the title” convo. Also, now I have “feeling groovy” stuck in my head.

    But great article. I’ve had challenges finding volunteer work, and I always forget that it’s a time investment for them, too.

  6. Jamie*

    I read the whole article in Marcia Brady’s voice in my head.

    Nice twist as she’s not the one who usually springs to mind when I think of career advice. After all Jan was the one who bested her at the job at the ice cream parlor…Marcia was too busy flirting with Jeff.

  7. mh_76*

    8. Once you’ve started volunteering for an organization, don’t be afraid to say “no” to requests sometimes – a friend & fellow volunteer for the org. that I volunteer for is almost full-time in the office and I’m convinced that his commitment is part of the reason that the org. didn’t refill an FTE position when that person left. The friend is on vacation right now and hopefully the org. figures out that they should really hire him but they’re too disorganized (despite being large & multi-national in scope).

    9. It’s OK to volunteer a for an org. or in an area that doesn’t interest you professionally because it shows that you have a life outside of your professional interest. My own vol. position is a leadership position and I’ve been told that it counts as a Management Position. I don’t want to work for that org. at all but the work they do and that I’m in leadership both look good on my resume (though the resume was only a minor consideration in my decision to sign up with them).

    10. Weigh whether/not you want to continue volunteering once you have found a new job – that is possible at a lot of orgs but not at others. Also weigh what their minimum/maximum schedule/commitment requirements are whether or not you have a regular job because in-between-jobs doesn’t = empty calendar.

    Kimberlee, Groovy was a popular (and overused) word in the ’70’s and had a bit of a resurgence in the ’90’s.

      1. mh_76*

        thought of one more…

        11. don’t forget about micro-volunteering – some orgs only need volunteers for a specific event (like the local Marathon…I’m not a runner but do live on the race’s route…or a charity walk etc…) or for seasonal/short-term work (like cleaning up the local parks)

    1. mh_76*

      [realizing that I misread the critique of the word “groovy” and that I would substitute it for some turn of phrase starting with “wicked”…what can I say, it’s a New England thing]

  8. De Minimis*

    My most recent position was with a non-profit and we were in the process of improving our volunteer policies. It definitely is a major investment for a lot of organizations, and sometimes even a financial one; I know in our case we had to do a drug screen and Dept. of Justice background check on all volunteers, and of course we covered the cost but due to that we really wanted to make sure someone was genuinely interested before we committed to that step.

    If my former organization is typical, I’d guess that smaller organizations might provide an opportunity to perform a wider variety of services and might have more of a use for various skill sets.

  9. Gary*

    Great article! I’ve been thinking of volunteering since I am unemployed at the moment and looking to add some experience.

    How would you go about looking for volunteer opportunities? I know the is one way, how about if it’s for other that don’t list their needs online as often. Should I email them? write to them? call them up? or just show up and ask to speak to someone?

    Would big companies be a place to ask to volunteering? I was thinking they might not want anyone to volunteer there due to secrecy issue or “corporate spies”.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Definitely don’t show up in person, for the same reasons you wouldn’t do that when applying for a paying job. I wouldn’t call either, for the same reasons. Send an email so that they can respond when they have a convenient minute.

      Good sources of volunteer opportunities are and You can also contact organizations individually — just use the email contact they have on their website. You will quickly find that some don’t get back to you — if it’s been a week, move on. They’re disorganized.

      You can’t actually volunteer at a company — it’s illegal under the Fair Labor Standards Act. So you’re looking only at nonprofits (charities) for this.

          1. JustAQuestion*


            Thanks for the mention! I was literally just thinking of that website!

  10. ChristineH*

    LOL, I thought the word “groovy” went out with the hippie generation!

    I was looking forward to seeing this posted since you’d mentioned writing about this a week or two ago.

    I think I can add another possible item: Volunteering is NOT necessarily the best way to actually learn brand new skills. I’ve been cobbling together some volunteer gigs in the last couple of years thinking it’d help me transition my career from one function to another. However, I now appreciate that supervision and training isn’t always something organizations have the time or resources to do. For meatier gigs, I think organizations expect you to, at the very least, have some training in the areas you’re volunteering to do so that you can just hit the ground running. I learned that lesson with an internship last year. Seems like the only way I’m going to actually learn new skills is to take additional classes or join AmeriCorps.

  11. JustAQuestion*


    I’m sorry that you’ve found volunteering did not afford you opportunities for supervision and training.

    In my rather limited experience with volunteering, I’ve found that larger organizations with well-established volunteer training programs and dedicated volunteer coordinator staff members are more likely to provide direction and enable volunteers to learn new skills. Also, volunteers can get a name-recognition boost from giving time to well-known organizations. This has just been my experience, so please interpret is as such.

    One last note, the AmeriCorps program is facing serious budget cuts and may not be around much longer. If the national service program survives, there’s very little consistency with experience among participants because some nonprofits are better prepared to train and engage their AmeriCorps members than others. Please keep this mind and research before applying.

    1. ChristineH*

      Thank you for your suggestion and for the heads up about AmeriCorps. There’s a career counselor at my university who has been trying to get me to apply for quite some time, but just haven’t found anything that’d be a good fit.

  12. Bowman*

    Over the years I have had two very positive experiences with volunteering where in one case a volunteer position turned into a hired position by the organization and another that provided me a reference that greatly helped me get hired in my current position.

    However – I have also had some very bad volunteering situations, both in smaller and larger organizations. If you’re not being trained, if you don’t have a supervisor that takes time with you, if there are many hours with nothing to do – then just leave. Working in the nonprofit field, there are lots of organizations that neither want nor know what to do with volunteers/interns and it ultimately is a bad experience for both.

    However, one way to avoid being taken on by an organization that doesn’t know what to do with volunteers is give a specific time frame that you can give the organization. If it’s event based, than many hours in a condensed period of time might be ideal – or if not say “I have x hours a week to give over 3 months/6 months”. If it’s an organization that knows how to manage personnel as well as volunteers – they’ll be able to think of their upcoming needs/projects and then really give the volunteer something specific to focus on. Should the fit be good for both the organization and the volunteer, then offering more time to volunteer will be seen as awesome by the organization. If ultimately the fit isn’t good (or the volunteer does become too busy), then the organization isn’t left in a lurch and may also agree in advanced to provide a letter of recommendation at the end of that time. This is how it works where I currently work, and while I wouldn’t say that we’re amazing with volunteers – when a volunteer leaves they are able to say on leaving what specific project/legal case they contributed to.

  13. Kat M*

    The volunteer position I had as a student didn’t lead directly to a job with that same organization, but the experience I gained working with HIV+ individuals was one of the main reasons I was hired for my current position, where we see a lot of patients with HIV/AIDS.

    (Note: I talked about it in my cover letter!)

  14. Andrew*

    “Slow down, you move too fast.
    You got to make the morning last.
    Just kicking down the cobble stones.
    Looking for fun and feelin’ groovy.”

    Playing in my head now…sorry, I couldn’t help it!

  15. Yup*

    Great article. I find myself constantly reminding friends and family about mindfulness towards the charity’s obligations to their clients. Want to volunteer with kids? You’ll need a background check. Want to volunteer with folks who are health-compromised? You may to provide vaccination records. Good orgs will work with interested people to get through this smoothly, but you can’t get all huffy just because they didn’t give you carte blanche as you walked in the door. Volunteering is great, but it needs to benefit both sides of the relationship.

  16. Fugyaljen*

    I am looking for voluterjob job for 4 to 6 weeks.within new York , my interest is airport, hospital, pls let me know. Thanks

  17. Job Seeker*

    Alison gave me some advice awhile ago to perhaps volunteer as a start to get back in the job market. I am going to do this while I am still sending resumes out. If I did not want to work again for a salary, I would like to volunteer anyway. I may do this someday when I get older. I have volunteered for a class before and do realize now that you can not always expect to get a paying job from doing this. My goal will be to use this for recent experience and hopefully a recent reference.

  18. CS*

    AAM didn’t get into this enough in her post but volunteering is also great for filling any gaps in employment. Even if you only volunteer once a week, if you do that for x number of months, imagine what that can do for your resume!

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