7 Basic Tips for Beginner Volunteers

So I have been volunteering for over 6 years now and in that time I have had the opportunity to meet people from many different backgrounds, both in South Africa and internationally. These interactions often make me think about how people get into volunteering and what their intentions are with the experience; some people do it for that “feel good” moment, some because it is a work/academic requirement, others do it to pass time and some do it because they want to make a difference or spend their time doing good. Whatever the reasons for volunteering I believe it is important to cover a few things and I have put together a basic list. Now this is not a comprehensive volunteering handbook but it is a good place to start:

1. Be clear about your reason for volunteering… be honest with yourself.

Know why you are there before you arrive. It makes it easier to fulfill outcomes and it makes the process more fun for you and those around you.

2. Communicate this reason with directors/co-coordinators of the organisation.

If it is for work or school your boss/teacher will probably already know this and possibly feel the same way as you but often the organisation is just so happy to have people to help they do not consider that some of you actually don’t want to be there. Let them know your reasons for being there in the most polite way and where possible suggest a job that you would be happier doing. We do not all like to paint walls or play with children. Some people are perfectly fine doing office work… say so if this is you or visa versa.

3. Go there with some kind of plan… even if it is bullet points.

4. Be sure that 90% of the time your plan is not going to work as imagined… Be flexible.

Like most things in life, environments that you are not used to are often not as you read about. When you arrive at projects you often get introduced to factors that you were not aware of- for example lack of resources or language barrier. Do not be disheartened. Take some time to allow the organisation to show you what they do and try to adapt your plan to fit with their regular routine. It is important to be flexible.

5. Remember… Rome wasn’t built in a day.

Often people think they can go into a place and change the whole society in the few days/ hours that they are there… I have often made this mistake, even as a seasoned volunteer. Bottom line is you can’t but never doubt that the work that you do, no matter how small it seems to you, is life changing to the people you are working with. Feeling unaccomplished is a common feeling after a session of volunteering, especially if it is a short session, that is why the next two point is also vital.

6. Do not make future promises when they were never in the initial plan.

This is self explanatory but a common mistake. If you did not plan on returning to the project do not tell them you will until a solid plan has been put together and you are sure you will keep in contact and return. This goes for promises to fund-raise or bring more volunteers to the organisation. It is hard on organisations in this field as they survive largely on what people give them and they are often disappointed. Rather surprise them at a later stage… the reaction and gratitude is worth the wait.

7. Debrief

You can do this as a group or on your own. If you are placed for a few days I would suggest keeping a journal to help you at the debrief. Otherwise write down some keywords on your notepad or on the memos of your phone as you go along (this does not mean you should constantly be on your phone, use the breaks). It is important to share your thoughts afterwards. You would be surprised what comes out of your mouth when given the opportunity or asked the right questions. It is also comforting to hear what other people experienced; often you will find people that felt the same as you during the experience.

This is my short list for beginner volunteers. I will probably post a few more of these as I go along. I hope it helps… and please feel free to comment if you have things to add or even challenge.

Happy volunteering!

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