How to be a (great) volunteer

Discover which attributes you need to become a great volunteer

How to be a (great) volunteer

Volunteering is an activity usually undertaken through a not-for-profit organisation, which is of community benefit, of the volunteer’s own free will, and for no financial reward. It is also a vehicle for individuals or groups to address human, environmental and social needs. Currently 4.4 million, or more than one in five Australians, are involved in volunteering.

Why do people volunteer?
People will volunteer for a broad variety of reasons. It may be to add something to their own lives (companionship, work, adventure, structure, or travel) or with the express intent of adding to the lives of others (education, skills, caring, practical support). Many older Australians move to volunteering as a way of seeking satisfaction beyond the normal material gains they have received from long years in the workforce. These volunteers are often looking for activities which will have an impact on their soul, offering new and stimulating experiences, different types of relationships, and allowing them, in some cases, to make friends for life.

When shouldn’t you volunteer?
When you are wishing to work over other people, to ‘get them better organised’ or because you think you have all the answers. No-one does, and most volunteers claim to learn more than they teach.

How do you get started?
List your skills, allowing for basic, often unrecognised talents such as ‘dancing with children’, ‘soothing babies’ or ‘don’t mind repetitive and menial tasks’. Try to objectively assess your personality for those traits which can add real value to the volunteering brief – commitment, compassion, sensitivity, enthusiasm, persistence, or tenacity. Think laterally on this one. Then assess your reasons for wishing to volunteer and don’t be afraid to include those reasons which may, on the surface, sound selfish: getting out of the house more, meeting new friends, adding some structure to your day, achieving a sense of self-worth. No-one is 100 per cent altruistic, and these reasons are just as valid as the more philanthropic ones.

Lastly, get practical and list the maximum number of hours per day, week, month or year to which you are prepared to commit – remembering that once the commitment is made, even though this is not paid work, you will have asked an organisation to trust in you. You will need to deliver on this promise.

Attributes of a good volunteer

  • Flexible
  • Adaptable
  • Good at group dynamics
  • Team workers
  • Proactive
  • Sensitive to cross-cultural issues
  • Resilient, particularly if there is conflict or times of difficulty
  • Prepared to make a commitment
  • Willing to learn and share, and don’t assume they have all the answers
  • Possessing a sense of humour
  • Know yourself well enough to select the correct task for your energies and one that matches your values
  • Respectful of the rights, dignity and culture of others

Good volunteers do not

  • Need to direct others
  • Use work as an ego or power trip
  • Feel overtly ‘sorry’ for those they are assisting
  • Treat volunteer tasks as a social outing. It’s not an excuse for a chat – there’s work to be done!

Putting it all together
Having listed your thoughts, now look for connections – is there a recurring theme here? Perhaps your passion is animals, and you are fit and love the outdoors, so animal welfare work is sounding like a possibility. Maybe you are a patient person with strong driving skills, and would consider work driving the disabled or elderly to be a worthwhile task, or perhaps communication skills are your forte, and assisting in public relations work for a startup community organisation will suit you better.

Once you have a fair idea of the type of volunteering you might like, go to the ‘Go Volunteer’ website and punch in your postcode – look at the types of opportunities which exist. This website is a recruitment site for Volunteering Australia, which is the peak body in Australia for organising and promoting volunteering. At you will normally find at least several hundred opportunities in the cities, and proportionately less in regional areas, to get you moving. However, do be aware that although you keep hearing organisations are crying out for volunteers, some actually have too many on their books. Don’t be offended or discouraged if you are not snapped up immediately. It may be that they are top of the list of favoured volunteer organisations, or that your skills simply don’t suit their requirements. Move on and try somewhere else.

This article is an edited excerpt from Get a New Life: how to change the way you live by Kaye Fallick. Order your copy of Kaye’s book online

Do you have any tips for prospective volunteers? Share your wisdom and experience in the comments below.

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    15th May 2014
    They don't want you there.
    They don't need you there.
    You are yet another pair of eyes that see what really goes on & can tell.
    I volunteered
    1- a well know aged care organization
    2 - a community environmental park
    3 - an opp-shop
    I worked very hard - out of pocket expenses I could not afford for NO APPRECIATION WHAT SO EVER.
    If you do not believe me
    As well as that these organizations do not have liability insurance - hurt yourself doing for them & you are on your own - what is more they have lawyers that will eat you alive before they will let you get any compo..........
    15th May 2014
    No health & safety -
    I did not hurt myself but I met a man who had a nasty fall which stuffed him up for a while.
    fish head
    15th May 2014
    As a single working Mum I was unable to support my child's school through voluntary work. It left me with the feeling of guilty unease. I was not doing my bit.The day after my retirement from teaching I volunteered for work in the Auxilliary at our local hospital. It is a joy even 16 years on. Some weeks it is heavy going physically, none of us are getting any younger, but the laughter and comradeship keep all of us involved.Not everyone who joined us stayed for a variety of reasons. We have had a couple of workers who have "had an odd kick in their gait" but the consensus is that no one is perfect and on a bad day anyone can be a bit gnarly so we politely ignore and rumble on. We hope they will stay and share the laughter but if they can't then at least they gave it a go. The worst bit is the compulsory 3 weeks break over Xmas (the staff hate it) but there are families to consider so we endure withdrawal symptoms until we reunite, rested?? and ready to go another round, creaking just a bit more in the joints.
    15th May 2014
    Fish head, I like your attitude. I too volunteer at an aged care facility, usually once a week as I am still working part time. I just love the time I spend with the residents. They have so many interesting stories to share and I hope that I bring some of the outside world into their lives as we talk about current issues, families, health and all things that matter go them. A game or two of scrabble with my 90 year old resident is one if the highlights of my friends week as she told me. If I can give some pleasure to another, I do not feel volunteering is a chore but a privilege .

    16th May 2014
    Retire at 60, do 15 hours a week as a volunteer for a charity, and get paid Newstart...and no need to put in forms each fortnight, but every 3 months and even then Centrelink only want to know if you earned anything in the previous's a great way to drift onto the aged pension at 65 and you do a good work for folks at the same time.
    18th May 2014
    About five years ago I ceased work and have been doing around 15 hours a week - sometimes more, sometimes less - for my Newstart allowance. This ceases in November when I turn 65. On advice from the Hunter Volunteer Centre at Newcastle I tried working at a retirement village. I love gardening, so helped out many of the residents with their "little" gardens, pot plants etc and then because I have played guitar and accordian and have sung all my life I began to entertain them too. Now I do around four concerts a month at a variety of places (in addition to my 15 hours) and they and I enjoy it immensely. I have found the residents, their families and the staff to be wonderful and I would highly recommend it. Even when my commitment to Centrelink expires this year I will still carry on volunteering as I could not bear to be without the company I so enjoy each week.
    19th May 2014
    GOOD on you..........and work for the dole should be enforced to stop 'bludgers' just laying around doing nothing, but smoke and drink..etc.

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