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Why is Volunteer Work Important?

Volunteering is often seen as something people do as a sacrifice. After all, volunteers offer their labor for free. Because of this, some even see volunteering as a form of punishment. After all, the criminal justice system frequently requires that guilty parties complete community service hours to atone for their crimes or transgressions against society.

However, volunteers do receive a great payback. They not only help people who need assistance, they support their passions and they can form new friendships and find new communities. Furthermore, volunteering offers the opportunity to share skills with others that might otherwise go unused. For instance, a skilled musician who now works for a law firm can teach their instrument to others and thus participate in music creation, even though that is not usually a part of their day. An art history major might volunteer at a museum as a docent or even teach a free class to seniors.

Volunteers share their skills and passions with those who have a great need for them. Without dedicated volunteers many disaster victims, abused children, ailing third-world individuals, and many more would not be able to raise themselves above their situation. In their own way, each volunteer helps make a better world for everyone.

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What is a Non-Profit and Volunteering?

volunteers and non-profit team

A non-profit organization is a business or other enterprise that does not record profits as part of its accounting. Due to the nature of their business, they are exempt from most taxation but must comply with certain stipulations to maintain their taxation status. Their specific tax-code designation, 501(c)(3), specifies that non-profits operate as charitable organizations, healthcare systems, religious institutions, or private foundations, among others. Upon filing for tax-exempt status, organizations must detail their intended mission and receive IRS approval. Political organizations may also be tax-exempt but these are organized under separate IRS regulations.

While these organizations do not generate profits per se, they do create revenue. A chief characteristic of a non-profit is that it can solicit tax-deductible donations from patrons who wish to support its overall mission. They can also use volunteer labor to reduce expenses and ensure smooth operations.

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For-profit companies, on the other hand, are fully taxed by the IRS. However, they are able to pursue a wider range of business opportunities without oversight. Their operations must be legal but they are not bound to any specific pro-social mission. Furthermore, for-profit businesses may not employ volunteer, unpaid labor.

Does Volunteering Benefit Students?

Volunteering may seem counter to our typical notions of work. Volunteers, by definition, do not receive payment for the labor they effectively donate to a non-profit. However, they do receive benefit in ways that are not immediately evident. Students in particular can benefit from volunteer positions. High school students can volunteer their time after school on a flexible basis while they work to keep their grades high. This activity will look terrific on a college application because it shows initiative. Furthermore, the volunteer work will help even more if it compliments their academic and career goals.

College students can likewise benefit from volunteer positions. They can find volunteer opportunities that match their goals, and which will help provide more depth on their resume. For instance, healthcare majors might volunteer at a hospital and early childhood education majors might volunteer with a non-profit, after school program.

In fact, some non-profit organizations might offer advancement opportunities for their volunteers. Thus, a student volunteer might improve their status and end up in a supervisory position over other volunteers, which will look even better on a resume. Non-profits are also known to give awards to outstanding volunteers.

How to Get Started in Volunteering

Both high school and college students are sure to find a wide range of volunteer opportunities in their local towns. Churches and non-profit hospitals, including the Veterans Administration, often have opportunities available. So-called candy-stripers are considered a valuable part of a hospital's operations. These helpers are typically high school age and their mission is to perform small but vital tasks for healthcare professionals. Churches also need volunteers to help in a variety of ways. Since churches run preschools, after-school programs, or even fitness facilities, they need volunteer labor to operate efficiently.

College students may find more volunteer opportunities due to their age and experience. For instance, they might help build houses with Habitat for Humanity, feed the homeless at a local shelter, or travel great distances to help communities recover from a disaster. New graduates also find volunteer opportunities with the Peace Corps.

Note that, even though volunteer positions are not paid and are rarely scheduled labor, they often screen their free workers with interviews and by other means. This is to determine the overall worthiness of the volunteer and to make sure that they are assigned to appropriate areas. For instance, some non-profits conduct alcohol sales, so their volunteers must be of an appropriate age and may need to comply with other state or city regulations.

To find the best volunteer opportunity in your area, first determine your area of interest. You are sure to find a non-profit that meets your needs. Though each is certainly unique in its approach to volunteering, you can call them and schedule an interview with their volunteer director to learn more about them.

Finding a Focus

find a focus area for volunteering

Before you start volunteering, it is important to find a focus for your work. There are enough non-profit organizations that you should be able to find at least one that is a good fit. Even if the problem is not finding a good fit, but choosing between your many interests, the good news is that volunteers are rarely required to work more than a shift at a time. This means that you are free to experiment with a variety of volunteer organizations on a shift-by-shift basis.

If your interest is in politics, for instance, you can surely find candidates to support with canvassing, phone-banking, or more. You can also volunteer for organizations that support causes that are important to you. There are environmental organizations, homeless advocacy and support non-profits, and many more which may support your political or other ideals. If healthcare is your focus, there are always opportunities to volunteer with a hospital. Senior centers also love to have volunteers come to support their staff and add value to their patients' lives. Veterans Administration hospitals often need volunteers, too.

Still others find an interest in the arts. Museums frequently train and manage large teams of volunteer docents, or they may need volunteers to help out with the gift shop, ticket sales, or other functions. Your town may also have a non-profit movie theater that needs helpers to run the concession stand and to clean the theater after shows. Live-action theaters are often likewise run on a non-profit basis.

For those who love education and children, there are surely opportunities to read to children at a local library, and homeless shelters often need help working with the children there. You'll find even more opportunities helping children of battered women or pitching in at a church's daycare or preschool.

Sometimes, there are opportunities to commit larger chunks of your time as well. Disaster-relief efforts in particular usually require volunteers to travel great distances and commit themselves to an extended period of time. Some non-profits attempt to address and solve systemic and chronic problems. The Peace Corps is a chief example of an organization that sends its volunteers to far-flung and impoverished areas to provide a myriad of services. Some Peace Corps volunteers are educators who teach children basic skills or help adults learn English. Still others bring advanced agricultural methods or seek to alleviate a small town's water issues.

Suffice to say that there are as many volunteer opportunities as there are non-profits. Some may be more popular than others, however, so it might not be easy to find shifts to work. However, don't be discouraged. You can always find other ways to serve or other organizations to help.

How Does Volunteering Affect Your College Application

Volunteering is a terrific way for high school students to flesh out their college applications. While the focus is often on school-centered, extra-curricular activities, when students take the initiative and find opportunities in their community, admissions counselors take special note. Finding a volunteer opportunity requires a level of initiative, maturity, and motivation that other extra-curricular activities don't necessarily need. And sticking with a volunteer position may prove you have a passion for a specific subject or area of need.

Students who have specific goals in mind for their college major and later careers can get a start on that through volunteering. For instance, future doctors or hospital administrators could volunteer at a local hospital. Students who are intrigued with politics could work on voter registration drives or canvas for their favorite candidates.

High school volunteers demonstrate an ability to go out into the world and interact with adults on a more equal footing. They cultivate working relationships in their towns and become an integrated part of that community. In this way, volunteering builds terrific life experience on top of practical work experience, thus resulting in stellar college applications.

Moving from A Volunteer to Employee Position

Though most pursue volunteering as a way to serve their community or specific causes they are passionate about, it is also possible to convert a volunteer position into a full-time career. This is a natural process that allows both the volunteer and organization to become familiar with one another. Over time it may become clear that the relationship is strong and that the volunteer should be considered for a regular staff position.

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Those who wish to convert their volunteer gig into a regular position should strive to fill as many of that organization's needs as possible. When on the job, strive to be helpful to new volunteers and learn to anticipate staff needs. When volunteers become indispensable, they make a strong case for regular employment.

Know What You’re Getting Into

The non-profit sector does not offer an easy career path. Though there are exceptions, many non-profit organizations operate on shoestring budgets, rely on fundraising, and often pay less than equivalent jobs in the for-profit arena. However, these jobs also provide personal and emotional rewards that you may find lacking in profit-motivated corporations.

Those that work in non-profit frequently find that they need to wear multiple hats in order to get everything done. For instance, they may not have support staff to help with things like answering phones or making photocopies. When it comes time for a major fundraiser, all hands must come out to help. The accountant might work serving punch to future donors and the CEO might be found hanging decorations or arranging for entertainment. In the meantime, volunteers are often learning on the job, and they must be supervised so that everything runs smoothly.

This sort of ad-hoc work environment might sound intriguing for some, but others would rather pursue a more specialized and stable career. On the other hand, some non-profits secure consistent grants or regular donors who help them maintain a healthy budget. These lucky few are more likely to pay their regular staff a bit more and more fully fund daily operations, including hiring all necessary help.

Degrees That Support Non-Profit Work

Since non-profit organizations operate much like their for-profit equivalents, almost any degree can help students land a position in a charitable organization. After all, they all face financial issues, staffing concerns, and have administrative needs.

However, one major opportunity to work in non-profit is the healthcare sector. Clinicians, including doctors, nurses, and medical technicians, can find work for non-profit hospitals and other healthcare systems, as can healthcare administration majors. Even finance and accounting majors can forge fruitful, well-paid careers despite working for businesses that generate no profit.

Likewise, accountants who specialize in governmental or non-profit taxes are sure to be able to find a position working with local charities, even hospitals. These organizations also need managers and administrators to ensure that operations are smooth and efficient. High tech workers can also find opportunities with non-profits. As non-profits grow, they find that they need to hire IT professionals, and some may even hire programmers to develop special software to help them fulfill their mission. Though the pay might be lower, non-profits might offer more creative opportunities on top of a more casual day-to-day environment.

One degree in particular is almost sure to land a person a career in a non-profit organization. That is social work. Social workers almost exclusively work for government agencies or non-profit organizations. The same might be said of public health majors. Lastly, there are also business degrees that focus solely on issues faced by or management of non-profits.

Careers in the Non-Profit Sector

  • Social Worker
    Social workers most often work for non-profit organizations. Whether they start their own private practice as a non-profit or work for a state agency, chances are, most social workers are found within the non-profit sector.
  • Administration
    Every non-profit needs administrators to manage volunteers, organize fundraising events, or manage the office.
  • Grant Writer
    Some larger non-profits employ full-time grant writers who might also write copy for their websites or general fund-raising pieces. However, most grant writers work independently and charge a percentage of whatever funds they raise for their client.
  • Art Curator
    Most museums are operated as non-profit organizations which might be independent or part of a state or other government.
  • Website Manager
    Larger organizations can afford to keep website gurus on staff, but they might also expect them to troubleshoot network issues or help fix the printer. There are also web/tech consultants that specialize in non-profits.
  • Fundraiser
    This is one of the most important jobs in a non-profit. Fundraisers work year-round to cultivate a base of donors. They coordinate mass mailings to solicit tax-deductible donations and spearhead initiatives such as annual fundraising galas.
  • Volunteer Coordinator
    Most non-profits rely on volunteer labor to get the job done. Whether it's a non-profit movie theater or an organization that provides writing workshops to under-served communities, a staff person needs to make sure that every shift is full of happy, volunteer workers.

Resource Section


  • FreeGeekFreeGeek
    FreeGeek is a small but growing organization that seeks to refurbish and safely recycle computer parts. Some of their facilities offer volunteers the opportunity to learn how to build and rebuild computers. For their labor, volunteers receive a free computer. The bulk of the rebuilt machines are donated to educational or other worthy causes. Their home base is Portland, OR, but they have outposts in Fayetteville, AR; Chicago; Twin Cities; and Vancouver, BC.

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  • United WayUnited Way
    The United Way is a huge, national non-profit organization that seeks to help people across a wide range of needs. Their work impacts education, medicine, hunger, homelessness, elder care, and much more. To become a volunteer, you can search by your particular skill sets or fields of interest.
  • American Red CrossAmerican Red Cross
    The Red Cross helps communities and individuals who are suffering after a disaster, who need blood, and who need certification for first aid, among other things.
    There are always great opportunities to volunteer with the YMCA. You could coach pee-wee soccer, teach a class, or take a leadership role on the board of directors.

Federally Sponsored

  • Veterans AdministrationVeterans Administration
    VA hospitals often need volunteers to do things such as provide transportation for veterans. Students also volunteer in areas such as speech pathology, Occupational Therapy, Nursing, Social Work, and Medical Administration, among others.
  • Peace CorpsPeace Corps
    President Kennedy spearheaded this global initiative that sends Americans of all ages (over 18) around the world on a mission of help. Peace Corps volunteers work as teachers, farmers, and on a variety of other issues, including public health.
  • Citizen CorpsCitizen Corps
    This is a branch of FEMA that trains volunteers to be of assistance in times of emergency. Volunteers learn to administer first aid and other skills vital to surviving disasters such as pandemics, hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis, or other environmental catastrophes.
  • Volunteer.GovVolunteer.Gov
    If you value America's natural and cultural heritage, this is a great federal program. You can find opportunities to serve in every state.

International Opportunities

    If you love organic farming and travel, you can join WWOOF and work on farms worldwide. You'll meet people from all walks of life and find enough adventure to last lifetime.
  • Global VolunteersGlobal Volunteers
    This organization offers volunteering opportunities all over the world. Their projects are wide ranging and there is sure to be a project that suits your skills and passion.
  • Projects AbroadProjects Abroad
    If you wish to help others in disadvantaged regions, you can join Projects Abroad and serve in one (or more) of many diverse fields including: childcare, healthcare, teaching, and micro-finance, among many other opportunities.
  • Globe AwareGlobe Aware
    This international organization seeks to send aid across the globe. You might serve in Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, or South America, but no matter where you end up, your experience will be life changing.
  • International Service LearningInternational Service Learning
    Through ISL, you can find projects that change your life as well as the lives of those you serve. This organization has been going strong for 20 years and has opportunities for Occupational Therapists, Ecologists, Veterinarians, and many other diverse personnel.

Students and Youth

    Sometimes abused children get caught in difficult legal situations that they are not equipped to manage. CASA seeks to provide legal advocacy for these kids so that their rights are protected. Volunteers are trained to provide the best help possible and thus ensure that these under-served children manage to find the best care and homes that they can. This is a nationwide movement and there are chapters in every state.
  • Big Brothers / Big Sisters of AmericaBig Brothers / Big Sisters of America
    Volunteering as a Big Brother or Big Sister can change your life, as well as the youngster you help.
  • Girl Scouts of AmericaGirl Scouts of America
    The Girl Scouts offer many volunteer opportunities for women who wish to help young girls learn and grow.
  • Boy Scouts of AmericaBoy Scouts of America
    Become a mentor for young boys and men as they strive towards the coveted Eagle Scout badge.


Business, Healthcare, Criminal Justice, Computers

  • Pro-Bono Legal Services
    Most larger law firms strive to allocate a certain percentage of their overall hours to pro-bono services. They will choose to defend or represent a client who cannot otherwise afford to pay for their services.
  • OpenOffice DevelopmentOpenOffice Development
    The Open Source community is always looking for computer programmers to help develop various software packages. The Apache OpenOffice project is just one example of an organization that offers coders the opportunity to build experience on real-world projects.
  • Medical Volunteers InternationalMedical Volunteers International
    This is a demanding volunteer opportunity that is not for the faint of heart. However, volunteers will have experiences that inform the rest of their lives.
    If you have experience in business and wish to help others achieve success, this is a fantastic opportunity. SCORE is part of the Small Business Association.