4 Things You Need to Know to Pick the Right Volunteer Gig

  1. Approach the Volunteering Search Like a Job Search

Sure, you aren’t getting paid, and may even feel free to leave with less notice than a regular job. But you’re still giving up your time, which is a valuable resource to you no matter whether you’re working 100, 40, or zero hours a week right now. So approach the search like you would a search for a job—do your research, tap your contacts in the relevant field, and make sure you understand the expectations of the position.

2. Define Your Goals Carefully Beforehand

Your goal may be very general: to pick up pro bono hours, or to give back to the community. But you may also wish to gain connections, training, client experience, or entry into a new field. By defining your goals beforehand, you can make sure you have the best possible volunteer experience.

When you’re accomplishing your goals, your positivity and satisfaction will make you into a better volunteer and a more productive professional, and ensure better outcomes for your clients!

3. Pick an Organization Based on the Organization, Not the Cause

This one might be a little confusing to newcomers, but for those of us in the public interest field, it’s accepted wisdom that your experience will probably be better at a well-organized nonprofit in a tangentially-related area to your dream cause than at a new or ill-managed nonprofit in your ideal field.

Also, by relying on advice from your contacts in public interest and other professionals, you might wind up doing more good for those less fortunate. Say, for example, that you want to work at a women’s rights organization, but your friend at NYLAG directs you to a youth shelter instead. You might wind up realizing that their cases are mostly protecting minors from sex trafficking, an incredibly important issue for women’s rights. Or you might get advice to go work on immigration cases—arguably, the most important human rights issue facing America today.

The important thing isn’t necessarily the mission statement of the organization, but the quality of supervision, client screening for meritorious cases (so you don’t waste your time!), and the availability of training in fields in which you want to gain more expertise.

Also, if you’re between jobs, you might want to pick an especially prestigious position, or one with connections at a firm or wherever you want to work. Your public interest friends, as well as a look at the nonprofit’s board composition, can help with this piece. Public interest law is seen by some as less prestigious than highly-paid firm positions, but many of the same dynamics apply—some nonprofits are actually even more concerned with school ranking, GPA and other superficial pedigree than Big Law firms. (For example, basically anything that ends in “Legal Defense and Education Fund,” or “CLU.”) If you can snag a gig at one of these places, it can make for a particularly good resume line.

Of course, employers enjoy hiring anyone who gives back!

4. Respect Politics, and the Expertise of Your Public Interest Friends

Nonprofits have their own internal politics, which frustrate insiders and newcomers alike. Be wary of drama that may interfere with your pro bono experience. Funding cuts, strikes (yes, this happens in public interest—even nonprofits treat their employees poorly!), leadership transitions or recent scandals can all have a negative impact on your volunteering time.

If you know what you want, ask for advice from trusted professionals, and respect that nonprofits are a whole other world from firms, then you’re sure to find a great volunteer experience!

Have you ever had a volunteer experience go wrong? Leave your story in the comments!

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