Meaningful Volunteer Experiences Require Thought
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This column was contributed by alumna Anne-Marie Schwerin ’85, Walla Walla YWCA executive director.
So you want to get involved in community life in Walla Walla outside of Whitman. Where do you start?
Begin by knowing that there are hundreds of opportunities with local nonprofit organizations. Every social service, arts and educational organization in Walla Walla is doing a lot of work with not nearly enough resources. Many of them could use the energy and hands-on help of Whitman students.
Finding a good place to follow your passion and share your talents is like looking for a job. You need to do some research about the place and package your skills and talents in ways that make it easy for folks to include you. One of the scariest things for me as a nonprofit director is volunteers, really. We don’t have a regular volunteer program here at the YWCA, and when people come with offers of volunteering (“Just find something for me to do”), it is sometimes overwhelming. Agency staff members often have to drop everything to find something, and usually what is found is not meaningful for the volunteer. So, come with a list of your talents and skills and don’t be afraid to be creative. I know that at our agency and at others, we really want to engage college students. We don’t always know how.
Many volunteer opportunities are lost because, like the YWCA, many local organizations do not have systems in place for integrating volunteers into their work. While an orderly volunteer program would be a win-win for everyone, taking the time to figure it out or just knowing where to start is a big challenge. A great volunteer opportunity for several students would be to identify those organizations in Walla Walla without a volunteer program and help them develop such programs. It would be an excellent opportunity to learn a lot about an organization and create something for the long term.
Still, there are plenty of organizations in town which do have established volunteer programs. If you have a particular interest or activity you would like to pursue and are looking for a place to share it, check with Whitman’s Student Engagement Center. The staff there has a good list of Walla Walla organizations and descriptions of what they do. Another place to check is with United Way, a community organization that raises funds for many nonprofits.
When you start checking with organizations, make an appointment to come in and talk to someone. Expect to have a conversation. Be clear about your interests, and don’t be shy when talking about your skills and talents. Talk about your experience with technology. Many nonprofits have lots of data entry requirements and never enough staff to do it. Many of us need help with social media work.
Nonprofits are governed by boards, and boards always have committees for everything from fundraising and finance to maintenance and programming. Most of us would love to have student help on committees but fail to think of students as committee members, so be proactive and ask! Committee service is a good way to learn about an organization and its projects and also connect with community members. Another thing to ask about is a board position. Nonprofits are always looking for board members, especially young board members. Again, expect to have a conversation.
Approaching volunteering this way is really like interviewing for a job. For those organizations without a volunteer process or program, it is like interviewing for a job when there are no readily discernible openings. While this approach takes more time than consulting a list of ready-made projects, the results are often more satisfying, both for you as a volunteer and the organization you’re volunteering for.