Volunteer Etiquette: Setting a Good Example as You Give Back

BY Sandy Lindsey TIMESeptember 1, 2022 PRINT

Becoming a volunteer is a great way to make new friends as you bond over a shared passion and the chance to make a positive difference in the world. Even though you aren’t getting paid, it is a job—so treat it as such.

Day One

Arrive at least 15 minutes early and sign the volunteer sheet, or fill out any other paperwork required. This is particularly important for high school students who are getting credit hours for their work. If you’re sick or an emergency crops up, call immediately; people are counting on you. Treat your supervisor or team leader and fellow volunteers with courtesy and kindness.

Dress codes vary—doing a beach cleanup will be different from working on a political candidate’s campaign. The key is to dress comfortably, neatly, and appropriately. If you aren’t sure what to wear, ask.

Be Flexible

Bring your hard-earned, high-level skills (certified public accountant? marketing pro?) and your strong back to every endeavor. All jobs make a positive difference. Be willing to jump in and help with any tasks that crop up.

You may be assisting a dog rescue with their bookkeeping or writing press releases one day when, suddenly, your help is needed to pack gift bags for a fundraiser. Or, perhaps you’re asked to take a break from what you’re doing to drive across town and pick up a large dog food donation when there’s no one else available.

The best things you can bring to any volunteer opportunity are energy and enthusiasm. You say that you’re a retired CEO who’s being asked to make photocopies? Leave your ego at the door; volunteering is about being selfless.

Team Player

No volunteer is an island, and collective efforts tend to lead to the best results. You may find yourself exposed to people whose circumstances and views are different from yours; respect the opinions, dignity, and privacy of every person you encounter. Focus on shared interests; you’re all here for the same cause.

Resurrect the lost art of listening well and with patience. Take initiative: If you see a potential problem arising, brainstorming a solution is productive and helps the group to bond. Support your teammates by complimenting their successes.

Most of all, keep your sense of humor; while you’re busy working toward a meaningful goal, you can still have fun along the way.

Kids often start volunteering with their parents or siblings. This also allows them to see their role models in action, setting a good example. (New Africa/Shutterstock)

Gracious Leadership

If you find yourself in charge, treat your team as you would like to be treated. Take a moment and thank them as a group or individually, telling them how much you value their time and effort. Check in with them throughout the day; attentiveness shows appreciation and can help to head off problems.

Supply food and drink if appropriate; at the very least, have water available. If the budget allows, gift volunteers with a small token of appreciation, such as a T-shirt or a gift card.

You can also share volunteer stories on your website, and, if the scope of the project warrants it, consider an awards event. At the very least, always follow up with a handwritten thank-you note—never an email. Now that you have a great team, you want to keep them.

Next Generation

Kids often start volunteering with their parents or siblings. They may be too young to work at a soup kitchen on their own, but they can definitely pitch in. This also allows them to see their role models in action, setting a good example.

Start off with something fun, such as dog walking at the animal shelter. Keep it easy—it doesn’t need to be an entire day—and perhaps something with other children involved such as a community garden or beach cleanup.

Check age requirements first; for liability and other reasons, some places limit volunteers to 12, 13, or even 18 years of age and older. Don’t worry, there are plenty of kid-friendly opportunities out there.

Sandy Lindsey is an award-winning writer who covers home, gardening, DIY projects, pets, and boating. She has two books with McGraw-Hill.
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