Volunteering is a great way to gain personal and professional experience while making positive changes in your community. The vast array of volunteer options provide opportunities for people of all ages to get involved and develop technical skills and educational insights not taught in the classroom. Volunteering creates lasting impacts on the health and well-being of communities, and betters the lives of all involved—including the volunteer.
Volunteers have a vast impact on local and global communities. According to the Corporation for National and Community Service, about 62.6 million Americans, or 25.4% of the adult population, gave 7.7 billion hours of volunteer service worth $173 billion in 2013. The Bureau of Labor Statistics calculated that the value of volunteer time averaged $23.07 per hour in 2015. The value and amount of time spent volunteering inarguably makes a difference.
This guide aims to inform you how to find a volunteer opportunity that best fits your comfort, abilities, and interests to create a positive and productive volunteering experience.
How to Act When You Volunteer
No matter your age, the relationships you build through volunteering can impact your professional future. With this in mind, it is important to approach your volunteering opportunity thoughtfully. The volunteer work you do demonstrates characteristics often sought after by potential employers and colleges. Any amount of volunteering can cause positive change, but you should go into the process with some “rules.”
The “Rules” of Volunteering
These rules are meant to be followed as general guidelines to ensure you are creating a positive effect and having a successful volunteer experience. Talk with your volunteer leader about any specific “rules.”
Do's of Being a Volunteer
- Do select an organization to volunteer with that appeals to your personal interests.
- Do be willing to try new tasks outside of your previous experience.
- Do show up on time to all commitments.
- Do complete all necessary trainings.
- Do follow directions and guidelines set by the organization.
- Do think about how to continuously improve in your position to better your skillset and further the organization.
- Do provide any constructive feedback in a professional manner.
- Do have an optimistic and open attitude when working under different circumstances.
- Do express appreciation for other volunteers as well as those you may be helping.
- Do have patience during difficult situations.
- Do navigate ambiguity with thoughtfulness.
- Do respect the privacy of those you work with.
Don'ts of Being a Volunteer
- Don't be afraid to ask questions.
- Don't select a volunteer opportunity that does not work with your schedule.
- Don't be afraid to make mistakes as you learn how to do your job.
- Don't forget to keep track of your hours.
- Don't assume all processes and people operate the same; adapt to varying circumstances.
- Don't show disdain or negativity while volunteering.
- Don't be scared of sharing constructive feedback to your organization in a professional, thoughtful manner.
- Don't forget to contact your organization in advance if you are going to be late or miss a commitment.
- Don't be unsure of what is expected of you.
- Don't force help on people or be intrusive.
- Don't give false promises or hope.
Important Questions to Ask Before Volunteering
- Are there any age requirements for this volunteer position?
- Am I able to commit enough time to this volunteer position?
- How will I get to the volunteer site? Is there parking?
- How many volunteers will I be working with at a time?
- What should I wear?
- Do I need to bring ID?
- Do I need to be able to lift or carry things?
- Is the volunteer event weather dependent? Will it cancel if it rains?
- How will my time be tracked as a volunteer?
- How is this volunteering program funded?
- Is there an orientation or training for this volunteer position?
- What skills will I learn through this volunteer position?
- Does this volunteer position further my professional development?
- What sort of duties will I be performing as a volunteer?
- Does the organization I'm volunteering with align with my academic pursuits?
- What education level is required to participate in this volunteering opportunity?
- Am I excited about this volunteer opportunity?
- Do my personal beliefs align with the organization I am volunteering with?
- Do I feel motivated to commit to this volunteer position?
- Are there any privacy agreements or rules I must follow while volunteering with this organization? Am I comfortable following these rules?
How to Find Volunteer Opportunities as a Student
Using this guide as a jumping off point, here are some steps that students at any educational level can follow to find volunteer opportunities:
Step 1: Check with Your School
Utilize the resources at your school to get in contact with organizations that provide volunteering opportunities, such as:
- Academic counselors
- Career centers
- School websites
In addition, schools often have programs that provide volunteering opportunities through them, including:
- National Honor Society
- Key Club
Step 2: Check with Local Organizations
Beyond the walls of your school exists a rich resource of community organizations that you can volunteer with. Here are some places to inquire:
- Food bank
- Farmer's markets
- Mayor's office
- Boys & Girls Clubs
- Local museums and theaters
- City parks and recreation departments
Step 3: Ask Family or Friends
Utilize your connections with family and friends to find a volunteer opportunity. Ask them if they have either:
- Volunteered at reputable places that are accepting volunteer applications.
- Heard of or work at organizations that are worthwhile places for volunteers to invest their time.
Step 4: Look Online
The internet provides a seemingly endless database of volunteer organizations and opportunities both locally and globally. The various volunteer opportunities found online should be further investigated to ensure the organization and associated volunteer positions are legitimate and worthwhile. For greater certainty that the volunteer opportunities you find online are genuine, look on school websites that have vetted lists of recommended sites.
Volunteering for Non-Traditional Students
I'm an online student — what should I do?
While not all volunteer opportunities provided by schools are available to online students (such as alternative spring breaks), it is worth checking with your online school. If your location is not compatible with the organizations that the school recommends, you can always look into the following:
- Ask friends and family.
- Reach out to organizations in your local community.
- Search for volunteer opportunities online.
- Volunteer remotely.
Remember that even if you are an online student, there are always volunteer opportunities within your community or even at local schools! The experience might not provide program credit, but the experience will be worth it and it's a great chance for online students to get offline and out volunteering in the community.
I'm an international student — what should I do?
Ask your school if they know of organizations that offer volunteer opportunities to international students. Ask if these organizations have opportunities to volunteer abroad and/or locally.
Studying as an international student can come with some limitations regarding volunteering. It can be difficult to find a volunteer opportunity as an international student due to visa limitations and/or language requirements.
International students in the US looking to volunteer with certain organizations must check their visa or entry clearance conditions to make sure they are allowed to volunteer while studying, as sometimes volunteering is described as “unpaid work” in documentation, and not all visa statuses allow this.
I'm a US student and want to volunteer abroad — what should I do?
US students studying abroad should check the embassy of the country they're traveling to for more information and opportunities about volunteering abroad. If you are having trouble locating your embassy, reach out to someone in your study abroad program. They should have more information about this and/or volunteering abroad in their country.
Some volunteer abroad resources that may make these distinctions clearer include:
- US Department of Labor
- Immigrate to America
- University of Michigan International Center
- Legal Q & A
Once you determine the flexibility of your visa, you can invest in volunteer opportunities or look into certain volunteer organizations that cater specifically to those who want to volunteer abroad. Volunteering abroad is a great way to meet locals, practice the language, and give back to the community you're temporarily living in.
Some international student volunteer organizations include:
Volunteering in High School
What are the benefits of volunteering in high school?
Here are some benefits of volunteering as a high school student. Keep in mind that these are just some of the benefits!
Tangible Benefits of Volunteering in High School
- College Applications: Volunteering in high school shows college admissions officials that you care about the community and have the time management skills to commit to a volunteer position alongside other commitments.
- College Credits: Some high schools reward volunteer work with academic credit. To find out if your school offers credit for community service, contact your school counselor.
- Community Service Scholarships: Utilize your commitment to volunteering by applying to community service scholarships available to high school students that can help pay for college tuition.
- Learn a New Skill: Interested in gardening? Love working with animals? Take advantage of volunteer opportunities that provide outlets for you to learn new skills not typically taught in school.
- Explore Career Options: From a law office to a local school, choosing to volunteer in a field of work that you're curious about pursuing as a career will help inform your understanding of what careers you'd like to further explore.
Intangible Benefits of Volunteering in High School
- Better Person: Volunteering teaches the value of having compassion for others and how to be a productive member of your community.
- Feel Good: Being a volunteer isn't always easy or glamorous, but it is beneficial and uplifting. You will gain perspective and a deeper appreciation for your surroundings.
- Meet New People: No matter the age, building relationships with people is valuable. Volunteering allows you to meet new people outside of your own age and demographic.
- Time Management Skills: Volunteering outside of school hours forces you to manage your time between school, extracurricular activities, homework and other activities, which will help you learn how to balance multiple commitments.
- Learn about your Community: Stepping outside of your circle of friends to volunteer will expose you to different sides of your community. Gaining a new perspective on your surroundings will better your knowledge of your own community.
Volunteering in College
Alternative Spring Break & Summer Vacation
An alternative vacation is an opportunity to volunteer abroad or locally with a community instead of vacationing elsewhere. Depending on the program, alternative vacations cater to different audiences: college students, families, retirees, high schoolers, and those taking a break from their careers. Alternative vacations range from a couple days to many months, and provide the chance to gain cultural understanding of a place not possible through traditional tourism.
There are many organizations that facilitate alternative spring breaks in communities around the world, providing opportunities to volunteer abroad or locally during your time off of school. Check with your university's study abroad programs or community service programs to find out if and/or where there are alternative spring breaks. Most programs require you to sign up in advance and participate in orientations.
Keep in mind: An alternative vacation isn't always entirely cost-saving.
Many organizations require their volunteers to pay for transportation (flights, taxis, etc.) to the volunteering location. Some might offer subsidized meals or housing, but it is important to calculate the costs before committing to an alternative vacation.
Advantages of Participating in Alternative Spring Break/Summer Vacation
- Deepened Cultural Knowledge: Depending on the location and length of time, alternative vacations allow volunteers to gain a deeper cultural understanding of a specific community not obtainable through tourism.
- Productivity: While many spend their vacation time lying on a beach or lounging in a hotel, you'll be strengthening your resume.
- Networking: Traveling somewhere to volunteer forces you out of your day-to-day surroundings—people included. Alternative vacations draw people from all over to volunteer, creating a melting pot of people to build personal and professional relationships with.
Disadvantages of Participating in Alternative Spring Break/Summer Vacation
- Cost: Many alternative vacations end up costing close to what you'd spend traveling on a normal vacation.
- Expectations: Not all alternative spring break/summer vacation volunteer options are as advertised; the jobs you do on a day-to-day basis may not be as glamorous or outwardly helpful as imagined.
- Lack of Amenities: If you're looking for a lush, comfortable situation during your break from school, an alternative vacation may not be the answer. Those who volunteer abroad may live and work in underdeveloped areas that do not provide the typical comforts found on a regular vacation or at home.
Alternative Spring Break Options for College Students
This list is a starting point for your alternative spring break vacation search. If you know of or have participated in an alternative spring break as a volunteer abroad or within the U.S, please contact us and tell us about your program.
Alternative Spring Break Options:
- American Hiking Society's Alternative Breaks
- United Way
- Habitat for Humanity
- Sierra Club
- The Student Conservation Association
- VIDA Volunteer
- St. Bernard Project
Summer Volunteer Programs for College Students
This list is a starting point for your alternative summer vacation search. If you know of or have participated in an alternative summer volunteer program as a volunteer abroad or within the U.S., please contact us and tell us more.
Summer Volunteer Options:
- American Hiking Society's Alternative Breaks
- The National Outdoor Leadership School
- The Student Conservation Association
- Common Ground Relief
- United Way
- VIDA Volunteer
- St. Bernard Project
Paying Off College Debt Through Volunteering
There are some programs that partner with organizations to help students pay off loans through volunteering. There are a variety of approaches to supporting loan repayment, such as crowdfunding, sponsorships, research, and residencies.
While many programs are legitimate, make sure that the program you connect with has been vetted. Do not give out financial information before you are certain the program is reputable.
While these programs can pay off your loans, they add extra steps in your volunteering process that make it more laborious and technically complex to get out and volunteer.
Volunteer Programs to Pay Off College Debt
- Year Program Established: 2009
- How much debt can be paid off? You can raise up to $1,000 per project. There is no cap to how many projects you can complete.
- Who is eligible? Current students, graduates with student loan debt.
- What is required? Getting $200 through sponsorships.
- Any downsides? You must receive at least $200 from sponsors before you are able to receive applications from Change Agents.
- Year Program Established: 2012
- How much debt can be paid off? You can crowdfund up to the full balance of your student loan debt, plus interest, processing, and transaction fees.
- Who is eligible? Current students, graduates with student loan debt from a U.S. university.
- What is required? Crowdfunding
- Any downsides? There is a 2.9% processing fee.
- Year Program Established: 1961
- How much debt can be paid off? It depends on the loan — some options include loan deferment, forbearance, cancellation, allowance, or forgiveness.
- Who is eligible? College graduates with certain loans.
- What is required? Having a loan that qualifies for one of the Peace Corps loan forgiveness programs.
- Any downsides? Not all loans qualify.
- Year Program Established: 1887
- How much debt can be paid off? Up to $35,000 per year.
- Who is eligible? Medical school graduates with loans.
- What is required? Conduct research for a nonprofit or government organization.
- Any downsides? Only certain NGOs or non-profits qualify.
- Year Program Established: 1972
- How much debt can be paid off? Up to $50,000 over two years.
- Who is eligible? Medical school graduates with loans.
- What is required? Primary care providers work in underserved areas.
- Any downsides? Narrow location choices.
If you know of or have participated in a volunteer program that helped you pay off your student loans in the U.S., please contact us.
How to Volunteer with a Busy Schedule
Volunteering can feel unfeasible at times due to busy schedules, difficult commutes, and prior commitments. However, there are ways to work volunteering into your life without hindering your lifestyle.
Making Money Donations
Monetary donations are particularly beneficial to organizations because they allow them to allocate financial resources to their most pressing needs.
Donations of money are sometimes the most useful forms of help post-crisis as they allow the organizations to address the crisis as efficiently as possible with the necessary supplies and trained staff.
Most non-profits will accept donations; common areas of interest that benefit from monetary donations include:
- Disaster relief
- Homeless shelters
- Food banks
- Environmental conservation organizations
Before donating money to an organization, make sure the nonprofit is vetted. You should also check their 501(c)(3) status. Organizations should have transparency and be able to justify what their monetary donations support. Here are some reputable resources that explain how to vet places before sending money donations:
Remote/online volunteering allows people to support an organization through tasks completed virtually through computers, phones, and mail. For instance, you could help organize a wish list of donation needs online, knit scarves, or send letters. The support you provide to organizations remotely can have an immense impact.
Volunteering remotely is an effective way to work in community service to your existing schedule — particularly if you cannot physically commute to the organization you wish to serve. Check the organization's website or reach out to them directly to see if they have remote volunteer opportunities.
This alternative mode of getting involved is well suited for those who need a flexible schedule, have a tough time getting around and/or want to volunteer at an organization outside of their community.
Here are some great remote volunteer resources:
Below you will find additional resources to help give you an idea of the volunteer opportunities out there.
This list is not comprehensive, but rather a starting point to support your search. If you would like your organization's volunteer opportunity listed on this website, contact us with details about the program and a link to more information. We review and reply to these submissions in a timely manner, and will add vetted resources to this list.
Volunteering By Popular College Majors
Due to the breadth of volunteer opportunities available, it is possible to align your major with a volunteer position to gain experience, network, and/or receive college credit. The following programs will give you an idea of the options out there for both undergraduate and graduate students looking for volunteer opportunities.
Volunteer Opportunities by Popular Interest
You can match your interests with many volunteer opportunities. Here are some programs to give you an idea of the variety out there — we've tried to identify those opportunities that have an 18 years or older requirement; please reach out if we've incorrectly identified a program as such or missed one!
Arts & Culture
- National Gallery of Art
- Projects Abroad: Performing Arts (18+)
- Volunteering with India: Theater Volunteer Work (18+)
Health & Medicine
- Foundation for International Medical Relief to Children
- Pebbles of Hope (18+)
- United Planet (18+)
- International Medical Relief (18+)
Poverty & Hunger
Seniors & Retirement
- Elder Helpers
- AARP Foundation
- Corporation for National and Community Service
- National Council on Aging