I got into volunteer work at the age of 16, when I had strong feelings about a local election that I was too young to vote in. On a day off from my after-school job, I visited the headquarters of the candidate I supported and asked how to get involved. Within an hour, I was knocking on strangers’ doors to urge them to do the thing I couldn’t do (vote). It made me feel powerful—like I was doing something important. And it gave me somewhere to channel all the angst I felt while watching the news that was a bit more effective than yelling at the screen.
Since then, I’ve done all kinds of volunteer work, and it’s always given me the satisfied feeling that only comes from directly addressing whatever’s bothering you. When I worked at a women’s center that provided resources to sexual assault survivors, it felt like giving a giant middle finger to so much of the ugliness that I was confronted with daily. Volunteering has also helped me, Anna Fitzpatrick, personally. The summer after high school, I discovered an independent magazine called WORN Fashion Journal. It was smart and progressive, and I immediately e-mailed the staff asking if I could be involved. The magazine was too small to pay me, but I contributed whatever I could, and, in exchange for my work, I met other writers, editors, and creative types that became my most supportive network in both my career and my life.
Volunteering is a great way to get involved with causes you feel passionate about, build a résumé, learn a skill, and meet new people. And pro bono workers are essential to the survival of a lot of charities and nonprofit organizations. It isn’t, however, for everybody. I’m really lucky to have the time and the resources to be able to give a little bit of the former away for free. I know this isn’t true for most people. But I do work for a living, and my volunteer work has led to a lot of paying gigs, so if you’re interested in getting involved with a cause or an organization but you can’t afford to work for nothing, you still may be able to contribute. You don’t have to commit to more than you can manage. Read on!
Know what volunteering isn’t.
Make sure your abilities will be put to good use by a place that truly needs them—not an opportunistic business that’s just looking for free labor. A basic rule: If you are working for a company that turns a profit and your work is benefiting them more than it’s benefitting you or the community you’re trying to help, you deserve to get that money!
There are ways to be rewarded for your time other than cold hard cash money, though. Volunteering at a business in exchange for developing professional skills or experience is sometimes called apprenticing or interning, and this can be valuable for acquiring hands-on training or breaking into an industry. Still, as the current conversation about internships proves, the line between experience and exploitation is often thin.
My litmus test for this is: Are you getting something out of the deal? I worked for free at a community newspaper when I was 17, but they gave me my first print bylines and school credit. I had no prior practice reporting, but my editors were willing to teach me. I wasn’t paid, but I was compensated in other helpful ways, so I felt it was a fair trade.
Consult your busy schedule.
It would be nice if we all had the resources to drop everything and clean sea turtles or whatever after an oil spill (and all power to you if you can—turtles are awesome), but let’s be real: Many of you are trying to juggle school, part-time jobs, college applications, and so much more. Adding another thing to your plate might require some scheduling magic.
Realistically decide how much time you have to give. Are you free an hour a week, plus travel time? Or maybe things are just too hectic during the school year, and you can only really work during summers and holidays? That’s OK—there are volunteer opportunities that fit all different calendars! Some are ongoing positions that meet for short intervals once a week, or maybe a full day once a month (a lot of environmental organizations do sporadic “drop-in” cleanup days). Some political campaigns could use just half an hour of your time a week, calling lists of phone numbers from your house
Event-specific positions are also non-time-intensive options: Festivals, campaigns, rallies, and the like might need a lot of help when it comes to preparing or executing, and when they’re done, they’re done. BONUS: a lot of these types of events happen during the summer! Even if, during the school year, you’re too busy trying to balance your student council meetings, SAT prep class, and your secret double life as a teen pop sensation à la Hannah Montana (I will believe this about each of you until proven wrong), you can look forward to volunteering on vacation—which I know might sound horrible to you, but I promise it’s actually rad.
Zero in on a cause you’re passionate about.
Super easy four-word pop quiz: What are you into? No matter how you answered, there’s probably a way to channel your love for that thing into a volunteer position. Do you like animals? A lot of humane societies just need people to walk dogs or “socialize” the animals (including PLAYING WITH CATS). If you like to read, applying to help out at a library might be the obvious choice, but there are also awesome organizations dedicated to reading to the elderly. If creative arts are more of your thing, festivals often need help running the show in exchange for free passes and tickets—and there are festivals for just about everything, including music, film, and food! The key thing to remember is the application process usually happens months in advance, so keep your eyes peeled for things hitting your city in the future.
Mentoring programs are great if you have some Yoda-like wisdom to pass along to the next generation. I love kids, but I’m not especially interested in the whole childbirth process at the moment, so I started working with Big Brother Big Sister Toronto, and now, every week, I get to hang out with the raddest seven-year-old who thinks my knock-knock jokes are fun and original and who kicks my ass at Go Fish. Programs like Willie Mae Rock Camp, Girls Learning Code, and my beloved Big Brothers Big Sisters are about using the skills you’ve acquired in your own (comparatively long) life to empower younger kids and, if you so choose, indoctrinate them about the evils of the patriarchy. Just an idea!