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.

Written by Kaye Fallick