Have you ever thought about volunteering but don’t know where to start? In this article we look at the sorts of things you could do – and there’s certainly lots of choice – help you decide what might suit you and tell you how you can go about finding opportunities. Most importantly, we outline the range of benefits volunteering can bring.
But what do we mean by volunteering? Put simply, volunteering involves spending some time doing activities that benefit other people, your community or the environment. Although you’re not paid, as we’ll see in this article, it’s still a win-win situation.
There are hundreds of different activities you could get your teeth into. Here’s a flavour of what’s available.
Community, social and welfare work
This might involve supporting older people, children, young carers, people with disabilities or those who are vulnerable because of homelessness or substance misuse. You could help at a club, hostel, shelter or day centre, work at a hospital or hospice, or lend a hand at a food bank or soup kitchen. There are befriending, mentoring and literacy schemes that need volunteers or, with training, you could offer counselling.
Volunteer coaches are important for all sorts of sports at different levels. You could also train as a volunteer referee, umpire or lifeguard, or marshal at a local marathon, triathlon or another sporting event.
Organisations such as St John Ambulance offer training in first aid so that you can help at local events and offer vital support whenever it might be needed. You may even save a life!
Arts, heritage and media
Volunteers are often needed at museums, theatres, art galleries and stately homes; you could provide information for visitors or offer practical help. Depending on your interests, you could also get involved in an arts or music project, hospital/student radio, tour guiding or archaeological digs.
You could help conserve wildlife habitats by clearing ponds or rivers, thinning trees, maintaining footpaths or litter picking. You could also take part in nature surveys, providing valuable information on different species of plants and animals.
Apart from practical conservation work, as mentioned above, you could help out with gardening, building or painting and decorating. Or if you have craft skills you could make items people need (such as warm knitted blankets) or teach craft techniques.
Working with animals
You could volunteer at an animal rescue shelter, city farm or zoo/wildlife park. Sometimes people are needed to walk rescue dogs or there might be neighbours who have pets that need looking after from time to time.
Most charities and voluntary groups can’t function without financial support. You could help them through organising sponsored or other fundraising events, collecting money on flag days or perhaps working in one of their charity shops.
Governance, administration, marketing etc
Behind-the-scenes you could consider becoming a charity trustee or a committee member for a community group; you would play an important role in the running and management of the organisation. People are also needed to deal with correspondence, develop and maintain websites, and raise the organisation’s profile through social media and in the press.
How do you decide what to do?
With so much choice, if you’re not sure what might suit you, ask yourself some key questions.
- Why do I want to volunteer? Your reasons may be many and varied. You may simply want something to do in your spare time, or you may need experience for your future career plans. Some people feel strongly about a particular cause, perhaps because someone has inspired them or they have directly benefitted from the work of volunteers in the past. The reasons why you want to volunteer will have an impact on what you choose to do.
- How much time can I commit? If you’re short on time, there are one-off opportunities that will only take a few hours. Otherwise, you could volunteer on a more regular basis, perhaps one evening each week, or spend some intensive time volunteering in the holidays or during a gap year.
- What do I enjoy? Think about what interests you. Do you like working outdoors? Are you a people person? Do you enjoy practical tasks? Are arts, crafts or sports your thing?
- Do I have the necessary background? For most volunteering opportunities you just need plenty of enthusiasm, but for others, such as those in developing countries or to work in skilled roles, such as providing expert counselling, you must have relevant experience and qualifications.
- Do I fulfil the criteria? Make sure you check that you are eligible for any opportunities that interest you. For some you need to be aged 18+ and/or pass a criminal record and security checks.
- How far can I travel? If you don’t have easy access to transport or have a disability that makes it difficult to travel, you may be restricted to volunteering opportunities in your immediate locality or that you can do from home. But if you’re willing and able to spread your wings, you could consider going further afield nationally or internationally.
- Can I afford it? Although for certain opportunities your expenses will be reimbursed, the fees and other costs that are sometimes involved for residential placements – especially overseas – can be high. Find out whether you could apply for a grant or consider raising funds yourself.
Ten good reasons to volunteer!
So what’s in it for you? There are lots of good reasons to volunteer – here are just a few.
Develop as a person and expand your outlook.
You’ll probably mix with people from all sorts of different backgrounds and, working with those who may be less fortunate than you, helps develop your empathy and understanding.
Meet new people and make friends.
Whilst volunteering opens the door to lots of opportunities, it is also a great way of meeting new people and building friendships.
Develop your skills.
Not only will you have a chance to work on your transferable skills (such as your ability to communicate, work in a team and organise your time), depending on what you do, you may learn more specific skills – anything from first aid to sports coaching.
Explore career ideas.
If you’re struggling to decide what to do, volunteering may give you an insight into some career options.
Gain valuable experience.
This is always helpful, but is really important if you want to go on to train for careers in areas like medicine, social work, archaeology or nature conservation.
Enhance your applications.
Volunteering will look good on your CV, apprenticeship, job or course applications or UCAS personal statement. It’ll also give you something to talk about in interviews.
As a result of your volunteering, you may get a certificate or some other kind of acknowledgement of your service. It may even be possible to work towards a relevant qualification.
Improve your confidence.
Putting yourself in new situations with new people will take you out of your comfort zone, which in turn will make it easier when you encounter unfamiliar situations in the future.
Do something productive.
There’s no need to get bored again!
Get satisfaction from making a difference.
Research has found that volunteering, whilst helping others, can also improve your own happiness and wellbeing.
How to find opportunities
Find out whether your school, college or university has links with charities that need volunteers or runs schemes such as the Duke of Edinburgh's Award or National Citizen Service, which include volunteering/social action. If you’re working, some employers give their staff time off to volunteer.
If you know what you want to do, you could make direct contact with relevant charities or other organisations, such as hospitals. You could also ask at your local volunteer centre as they will know of opportunities in your area and point you in the right direction.
Another good starting point is to search for opportunities through websites such as Vinspired, Do IT, Volunteering Wales, Volunteer Scotland or Volunteering Matters as these may allow you to search for activities based on where you live, what interests you and your availability.
If international volunteering appeals to you, there are lots of organisations – too many to list here – that offer volunteer projects overseas; these are often aimed at those who want to take a gap year/career break. Search online for opportunities, but make sure that the organisation has a good reputation.
You may have noticed a need within your own community. It could simply be someone in your neighbourhood who would benefit from babysitting or shopping. Or you may have an idea for your own social action project.
The #iwill campaign aims to get more young people interested and active in such projects – from tackling knife crime to helping people cope with mental health issues. Support and funding may be available from organisations such as BBC Children in Need.
If you’re registered with the Jobcentre Plus, your work coach may support you to do voluntary work through the Work Together programme. If you are claiming out-of-work benefits, let the Jobcentre Plus know that you intend to volunteer as it may affect your entitlement to benefits.
Whatever you decide to do, you are likely to receive a warm welcome as so many organisations rely on volunteers. But, before you commit to any volunteering opportunity – and it is a commitment – make sure that you are fully aware of the facts.
What support will you have? Will there be initial training? Will you work under supervision? Will there be any costs? Can you claim expenses? If you’re going abroad, it’s particularly important to get advice; you’ll find information on GOV.UK.
Hopefully this article will have given you plenty of food for thought and a bit of inspiration. You’ve got nothing to lose and lots to gain!
Debbie Steel, August 2022
With a background working with apprentices and teaching in further education, Debbie was employed as an in-house careers author before establishing herself as a freelancer. As well as co-authoring numerous careers books, Debbie has produced resources and web content for a range of high-profile clients. She is an enthusiastic proponent of impartial and reliable careers information.