Volunteering is a great way to start in the non-profit field. Here are some tips to make it easier for you to succeed.

Find one to three with missions in which you really believe . You can find groups in your area on CharityNavigator.com or any volunteer matching group in your community. Research the groups on the internet and become familiar with their work before you contact even one group. I recommend this because you may find that you want to volunteer for all or only one of them. You need to find the “right fit” for your personality, skills and career goal. If you volunteer at more than one, you’ll get more experience in the field and more opportunities to accomplish things. And by identifying more than one in the first place, you’ll have options if your top pick turns out to be a horrible place to work, or they have no volunteer opportunities.

You need to really believe in the mission because you won’t be paid.
Instead, you’ll need to be “rewarded” with your satisfaction in contributing to something really important. Most often, you will pay your own way; non-profits typically do not cover any expenses for a volunteer except those directly involved in the project you are working on (e.g. paint for a painting project, stationery/telephone/copying for any office-based project). You’ll cover your own travel, lunch, etc. expenses.

Make sure the organization has a volunteer coordinator. Without a dedicated staff person to handle volunteer assignments, it’s often hard for the organization to manage volunteers. It also makes it challenging for you to know who can help you if you have an issue with your assignment or supervisor. When you talk to the volunteer coordinator, you can “interview” them just as s/he will interview you. You need to find a place in which you are comfortable working – think of it as an unpaid internship or temporary job. If you don’t like the volunteer coordinator, move on to another organization; that person will be your main link to the organization, so you want to be able to work with him/her.

When I was the Executive Director of City Harvest, we always had at least a part-time volunteer manager. At very least, we needed someone who could handle the inquiries from potential volunteers. Otherwise, it was very frustrating for potential volunteers who needed some kind of response. Over time, we expanded the volunteer manager to full-time because we realized the managers needed help figuring out appropriate volunteer projects.

Give yourself a competitive advantage through flexibility. Nowadays, being a volunteer is not as easy as it once was given the number of people seeking those opportunities. To give yourself an advantage, it’s best to be willing to do anything they need done and to have a flexible schedule. Even if you have other responsibilities – a child, an ill parent, school – stretch your availability as much as possible.

Get better assignments by meeting the organization’s need for reliability and consistency. Non-profits really need people they can count on week after week for an extended period of time. If you are willing to show up one, two or three days a week for at least 3 months and do work in the office, you may very well get a substantial assignment. That assignment will give you a great feel for what it’s like to work for a non-profit, and probably will expose you to many aspects of non-profit work – enough for you to decide the area in which you want to focus your job search.

The more substantial the assignment, the more likely you are to complete something. This will constitute an accomplishment which you can list on your resume. One woman I know secured donations of flowers from a well-known food market for a non-profit for which she volunteered. She’s parlayed that into interviews for fundraising jobs.

Network, network, network! Remember this is part of your job search and career development strategy. When you volunteer, you’ll make contacts and friends who will be willing to help you with your job search. It’s been known to happen that long-term volunteers get hired by the non-profit – you’re a known quantity in terms of the quality of your work and your “fit” with the culture of the organization. Even if you don’t get a job where you volunteer, your volunteer experience is valuable “work experience” that you add to your resume.