10 Ways to Be a Great Volunteer

By Jen Holman


School and sports are back in full swing, and the holidays are just around the corner. Work parties, class parties, church functions, fundraisers, field trips and STEM nights must all be planned—and manned.

Who’ll do the work? Who’ll make sure the fall carnivals and spring galas go off without a hitch? In my experience, it’s usually the same set of worker bees. You know the ones, those men or women who can always be counted on to make things happen. Whether it’s asking for donations, corralling volunteers, setting a fabulous table or doing the dirty work, some people just know how to get it done.

What’s their secret? Are their brains more organized? Do they have more free time? Is it experience?

At work, at school, at church or the animal shelter, is it possible to become a great volunteer—one of those people you’ve always watched while shaking your head in awe? You bet it is. Take a look at these tips I compiled after speaking to several experienced volunteers and managers.

1. Try something new. Feel strongly about a cause or organization? Think you can make a contribution? Go for it! It’s okay to step out of your comfort zone, and chances are the group will need help so badly they’ll overlook your inexperience.

2. Take stock of your talents and interests. What are you good at? What are you comfortable doing? Is web design your thing? Maybe it’s baking. Do you have Fridays off? Somebody, somewhere will be thrilled to utilize your time and talents.

3. Don’t wait for an invitation. A great volunteer doesn’t wait to be asked. If you’re expecting a golden invitation, the party will pass you by. Committee chairs are often overwhelmed. They’re so busy working they can’t see you standing there. What they need are volunteers who’ll show up and get things done. If you can help, say so, which leads me to…

4. Four magic words: “What can I do?” Volunteer organizers love flexibility. They usually have a list of tasks a mile long, just waiting to be completed. Don’t know what to do? Ask.

5. Communicate. OK, so, you have a task, but the committee chair is wearing you out. She won’t stop emailing and texting about deadlines and specifics. Doesn’t she know you’ll come through in the end? Well, no. She doesn’t. Tell her. Respond to emails and texts with details of your progress. And this is very important: If you can’t follow through, let someone know right away so they can assign someone else to the task.

6. Don’t over-promise and under-deliver. You had good intentions, but somewhere along the way you lost your head and promised to hand-make 40 centerpieces by Friday. Maybe you swore to secure your friend’s ex-boss’s cabin in Aspen to headline the silent auction, but now they’re on the outs. A recurring theme among the experienced volunteers I spoke with was the importance of not overextending. A volunteer is helping no one if he crashes and burns. It’s okay to start small. It’s okay to set boundaries. Do what you know you can do, and observe the rest for next year. Don’t promise the moon; you’ll never deliver. There are a thousand little stars, though, that you can easily grasp.

Manning the check-in booth at the Jefferson Fall Carnival!

Manning the check-in booth at the Jefferson Fall Carnival!

7. Don’t take it personally. If ever you feel out of touch or out of the loop, check in. Volunteer organizers are people too. They have a lot on their plate. If you’re feeling slighted, it probably isn’t personal— they’re just overwhelmed. Or maybe you submitted a great new idea, but the old guard only wants to do things their way. If your brilliant plan isn’t adopted, move on to the next one. Keep trying. Remain diplomatic and try not to take it personally.

8. Keep negativity to a minimum. Though it’s too often rampant, there’s really no room for negativity in volunteer work. If you don’t like something, offer an alternative. Don’t criticize how a thing gets done; just be thankful it did. After all, everyone’s working toward a shared goal. Remember your cause and motivations. Keep a positive attitude and a smile on your face as you do the work for kids, for dogs, for Jesus.

9. Manage your time; know your limitations. Commitments can sneak up on you. Suddenly it’s the week of the event, which has taken over your life. It’s pizza for dinner again and your 4-year-old’s fingers are bleeding from twisting floral wire for the 40 centerpieces you promised. It’s important to manage your time well and consider your other obligations. Plan ahead so that the rest of your life isn’t sucked down the drain. Prioritize. Carve out undisturbed moments to make phone calls or update spreadsheets where you can.

10. Complete the task and prepare for meetings. A great volunteer is prepared for meetings. She has done the task/assignment from the last meeting, and is ready to report on it. If we’re being honest, I’ll admit to making outstanding phone calls en route to a committee meeting, but, hey, it gets done. Pulling off successful events or completing projects takes teamwork. Everyone has to pull their own weight.

I’m learning as I go when it comes to volunteering and serving on committees. Often, I don’t have a clue where to begin. Some people, though, have been volunteering their whole lives—it’s part and parcel of parenting and community for them. Even so, I think we all have a little room to grow.

A friend of mine, skilled and experienced in volunteer work, recalled a quote she’d taken to heart. “Volunteer work takes doers, donors and door openers.” From schools to shelters, there’s a lot of need in Central Arkansas. If you’re inclined to volunteer, put yourself out there. Maybe these tips will help.

 Jen Holman is determined to be a voice of reason amongst reality TV and mom-judgment-gone-wild. Her newest novel (as yet unpublished) won the 2017 Rosemary award for excellence in young adult fiction. She lives in Little Rock with her husband and three (im)perfect children.