For me, and of course countless other people, March of 2020 was unprecedented. My workplace shut down; my job was put on hold. At the time, I was living with my parents, who had their hands full as essential workers. I sat at home and felt useless, lost, and scared. So I did what I now realize I have always done when my life situation seems uncharted: I volunteered. 

After checking in with my family on how safe it would be, or not, I strapped on a homemade mask and joined a community food drive. I spent weeks sanitizing, organizing, and distributing food to everyone who came through the doors. As time went on, our little volunteer group became a well-oiled machine, skilled at everything from turning cash donations into grocery gift cards to recognizing just how much pasta a family of eight can eat. As the uncertainty about Covid swirled around us, I was able to focus on the here and now, on what I could do in my own little corner of the world. 

From Girl Scouts to AmeriCorps, volunteering has been a part of my life for nearly as long as I’ve been alive. I am by no means an expert, but I’ve been around the block a few times and have learned quite a few things about what it means to give back. In my current position at the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, I am responsible for recruiting, coordinating, and supporting volunteers. So, dear reader, allow me to share what I consider some of the most important do’s and don’ts of volunteering. 

Do find your passion and people. Don’t force yourself to volunteer because you feel obligated.

Free time is a valuable commodity. Choosing to volunteer is a wonderful use of that time. As such, make sure you’re getting involved in what matters to you. Make sure the people already involved are the kind of people you want to know and work alongside. If you are excited and passionate about something, you are better engaged and invested in it. 

If your volunteering gig is a constant energy-sapping grind, it will affect the quality of your work. It will also drain you — and that is the opposite of what you should get from using your free time.  

Do communicate with your organization. Don’t feel like you’re on your own.

If you’re volunteering through an organization, stay in touch with them — and make it as easy as possible for them to stay in touch with you. If you feel they need to be more forthcoming and communicative, tell them that. And make sure they know what you can bring to the table in terms of skills and experience. Don’t feel left out in the cold; the projects you are working on are bigger than yourself, and you should have the opportunity to experience that connection. 

Do build your volunteering into your plans and lifestyle. Don’t make volunteering an afterthought. 

If you’re going to do something, do it right. Organizations need volunteers because they need to get stuff done! If you agree to do something, hold yourself accountable. I know, getting up at 8 a.m. on a Saturday to go plant trees in the pouring rain doesn’t sound like great fun, but you promised to go! The time volunteers donate can sometimes be a very real make-or-break aspect of a project’s success. Organizations are counting on you; make sure you plan for them. 

Do know when to take a step back. Don’t pour from an empty cup.

Sometimes volunteering is a luxury you can’t afford, and self-care is important. If your life has gotten hectic, if your health isn’t great, et cetera, let your organization know, and then take a step back. Volunteerism is a balance between helping an organization and doing something that enhances your own life. If it is no longer benefiting you — or even worse, wearing you out — it’s time to take a break.  

Do offer insight and constructive criticism. Don’t think you have to operate with mediocre standards.

Volunteers get into the real grit of seeing how the efforts of an organization are executed and implemented. In many situations, they are the majority of boots on the ground. If you see something or have ideas, let your organizers know. The staff of organizations tend to be preoccupied with big-picture planning. Your perspective is important when it comes to the effectiveness of what you are doing. Speak up!

Do let volunteering change the way you see the world. Don’t think it’s not making a difference. 

Sometimes volunteering feels disappointing because you might not see an immediate difference being made. But I am here to tell you that’s never true. At the most basic level, volunteering will affect who you are. If your volunteer experience gives you insight into yourself and what you care about, then it is a success. If everyone volunteers, then everyone will gain insight as well.  It’s okay if you only save one person, and it’s okay if that one person is you.

If you see a situation that seems hopeless, then you are the hope. Your very existence and involvement in your community matters. Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” 

To volunteer is to put yourself out there because you care, because things matter, and because the way things are isn’t the way things should be. At least, not yet. And not without you.