Volunteering is a great way to enhance skills, contribute to the community and keep professional structure intact as you transition between jobs, re-launch yourself from at-home mom status, or simply ride out a life transition. But volunteer beware: Giveaway remorse sucks the goodwill right out of you when the commitment you make isn't what you were expecting.
Here are 5 simple things to know before you say "Yes! I want to help!":
Who's your boss? Literally, who is in charge? This is critical. You'll want to serve this person generously and if you are not connecting to their style and vision, you will be frustrated (they will be too). Of course, if no one is in charge you'd rather know that upfront, wouldn't you?
Who else comprises the team/project? This is tricky but since so many volunteer gigs are virtual, getting formal introductions to others along for the engagement is critical. Try to assess who is working in the background of the project (paid and volunteer). You should feel excited about getting to know these folks and you might even want to have an idea about what (skills, contacts, inspiration) they might offer you. It isn't all "tit for tat" but if you practice being strategic on volunteer assignments, when you need to negotiate a higher-stakes issue your practice will allow you to be more effective.
What are the project's *stated* goals? And if they aren't stated, then back away from the gig ... fast. If you are volunteering to help a group clarify goals, then, of course, that's a different story. However, if you are serving with the intention of hitting clear milestones (helping raise $10K, starting a foundation, tutoring a child), you should know what the goals are, whether they are realistic, and how you can contribute toward meeting them.
What is the engagement's time frame? Is this a 1-day hands-on service project like a clean-up or car-wash? Or is this a complex branding mission with Web design? Are you building a digital library for a nonprofit or delivering meals for people in need once a quarter? Make sure to accurately assess your bandwidth so that you don't over commit. For instance, if you have children, and are interested in volunteering as time allows, make sure that the engagement you are considering flows in a similar way. Likewise, if you are extremely focused on re-launching and have childcare readily available, you can be more aggressive in choosing your roles and responsibilities. The key is getting the right fit, and serving with your heart and soul aligned with the work.
Lastly, what expenses are you likely to incur as you serve? This is key. Try to scope out the basic fuel, parking, transport, phone, and wireless costs you'll incur. Then add another few bucks to that figure, just in case. Make sure that you can afford to do the volunteering.
I have two volunteer projects that I have been focused on for about 3 years. They both offer independence and the ability to organize and schedule my time without a lot of group process and meetings. This is key for me.
One of the projects is picking up homemade meals and delivering them all over the DC metro area to people who just need a break from cooking. Sometimes it is grief that ails them, sometimes it is the exhausting joy of a new baby that makes them great candidates for a night off from the kitchen. I deliver once or twice a month, at most, and I usually put my kids in the van as my assistants. Even with such a small commitment, I find it is never without a bit of a hustle on my part. We are busy and making room to serve others - unexpectedly - is part of why I keep the commitment to this job. I have had larger, more public roles, but this "Driver" role remains one of my favorites for its simplicity and anonymity.
The other pro bono project I am engaged in is photography for land trusts. I shoot and process images of land parcels, scenic views, and more and donate them to Trusts to use as part of their rights-free library. My goal is to use my skills to help empower the mission of these trusts. I get so much out of helping preserve our treasured lands and it is my hope that within 10 years I'll have made a small difference advocating for smart growth and land use.
Whatever you choose to do with your time, make sure that it provides some meaningful (maybe even magical) connection to your soul.