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 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?"
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. That's because many volunteers flake out soon after signing up; in fact, many nonprofit managers complain that the majority 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 well-staffed generally 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 volunteer.gov for a wide range of volunteer jobs around the country.
Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog, where she dispenses advice on career, job search, and management issues. She's also the co-author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Manager's Guide to Getting Results, and former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, hiring, firing, and employee development.