Becoming a Volunteer

By Ron Elsdon

Volunteering is a vibrant component of our society. Not surprisingly, we often suggest that our clients volunteer as a stepping stone on a career path (Fitzgerald, 2017). However, engaging in volunteering is sometimes challenging as clients have mentioned to me when exploring volunteering as a primary endeavor.

This article will examine the purpose of volunteering, different forms it can take, selecting volunteer opportunities, and participation at different life stages from the perspective of the career professional and the client. Building on personal experience, examples will be provided to encourage more development through volunteering, both personal and professional.


Purpose of Volunteering

Volunteering means committing time and expertise in service to a cause, without expecting payment. It is aligned with our counseling values of supporting development of others and the health and vitality of our communities. We can readily see the altruistic reasons for volunteering. For example, I volunteer with our local Food Bank in various capacities, helping clients apply for CalFresh (previously Food Stamps), assisting with hunger surveys, occasionally giving talks advocating for the work at the Food Bank. When in food pantries and homeless agencies, it is heartbreaking to see the difficult lives some people lead. Counseling skills are very helpful and much needed in this work.

There are practical benefits to volunteering such as opportunities to

  • learn new skills, for example communication and leadership;

  • make new contacts in areas or organizations of interest;

  • bridge employment gaps.

Pro bono consulting illustrates some of these aspects, in that teams from the for-profit world bring their skills to nonprofit organizations (Hurst, 2013). Volunteering also helps people engage in the world around them (Murphy, 2016).

The purpose of volunteering, whether altruistic or practical is clear. However, finding meaningful volunteer opportunities can be challenging. I am surprised when nonprofit organizations sometimes don’t take advantage of pro bono career services. Fortunately, there are many organizations that value volunteer contributions. For example, I currently volunteer in a Federal prison, where the staff welcome volunteer career services for inmates (Elsdon, 2016). Here is a quote from one of the prison psychologists “It meant a great deal to the inmates (and me) that you were there.” One way to find a welcoming organization is first to develop personal criteria for engaging in volunteer activities, just as we would when considering employment. Let us look at what this means.


Criteria to Assess Volunteer Opportunities

I use the following criteria to assess how a volunteer opportunity may fit (illustrated with present and past personal examples). These criteria may be helpful to you and your clients in developing your own versions.

  • The volunteer situation draws on something of value from my background/experience that I enjoy, for example:

    • Interview coaching for chemistry and chemical engineering students as part of American Institute of Chemical Engineers/American Chemical Society teams at local universities

    • Guiding teams providing pro bono human resource services for nonprofit organizations

  • The receiving organization wants and needs such contributions, for example:

    • A center for low income clients that welcomes career counseling and support for CalFresh food resource applications

    • Advocacy for social causes at progressive churches

  • The receiving organization’s purpose has personal meaning, for example:

    • Being a board member for a nonprofit organization helping children navigate the foster care system

    • Being a board member for a nonprofit organization addressing the needs of career professionals

    • Participating in the healthcare-for-all movement

  • The receiving organization is sufficiently well organized to accommodate volunteers, for example:

    • Being an advisory group member for a U.S. Department of Labor career web site development team

    • Helping with exhibit development at a science museum

    • Providing business consulting to nonprofit arts organizations.


Selecting Volunteer Opportunities

Aspects to consider in selecting volunteer opportunities are:

  • whether to engage directly in service, such as interview coaching, or take on a support role, such as board membership

  • the desired time commitment, such as an on-going engagement, episodic engagement, and event driven participation

  • ease of access.

Defining criteria for selecting volunteer opportunities provides a strong foundation for assessing how specific opportunities might fit. Such opportunities can be identified through individual networking, local volunteer centers (a volunteer center example is included in the references), and professional, social, religious, and civic organizations.


Volunteering at Different Life Stages

Volunteering will evolve over a life time. The focus may shift from more tangible benefits in earlier life stages to more altruistic aspects later, from a stepping stone earlier to a destination later. Or both aspects may be there from the start either in individual volunteer experiences or in a range of volunteer experiences. Volunteering options may differ according to demands of paid work situations. At one point in my earlier conventional employment, with less time and flexibility, I was one of several volunteers mentoring inner city high school students. Volunteering has become an important part of my nontraditional career path (Elsdon, 2014) aided by the time flexibility this offers. It was one of the components of this path at the beginning and is now a primary aspect.


Overcoming the Challenges is Worth It

Much like our broader work and personal lives, volunteering can be deeply fulfilling and a bit frustrating. Here is a relevant quote to provide a perspective (Yancey, 2003) “How do we … act as stewards of the grace we have received? … We can begin with humility and gratitude and reverence, and then move on to pray without ceasing for the greater gift of love.”



Elsdon, R. (2016). Volunteer career services in a prison. NCDA: Career Convergence. February 2016. Retrieved from https://ncda.org/aws/NCDA/pt/sd/news_article/117365/_PARENT/CC_layout_details/false.

Elsdon, R. (2014). How to build a nontraditional career path: Embracing economic disruption. Santa Barbara, California: Praeger.

Fitzgerald, M. (2017). The power of personal experience. NCDA: Career Convergence. Retrieved from https://ncda.org/aws/NCDA/pt/sd/news_article/139160/_self/CC_layout_details/false.

Hurst, A. (2013). Pro bono service: Driving social impact with professional skills. In R. Elsdon (Ed.), Business behaving well: Social responsibility, from learning to doing (pp. 81-94). Washington, DC: Potomac Books.

Murphy, J. (2016). Volunteering for a cause you love can keep you engaged in the world around you. Chicago: Daily Herald, 8/2/2016. Retrieved from http://www.dailyherald.com/article/20160802/entlife/160809825/.

The volunteer center serving San Francisco and San Mateo counties. Retrieved from http://www.thevolunteercenter.net/

Yancey, P. (2003). Soul survivor: How thirteen unlikely mentors helped my faith survive the church. New York, NY: Doubleday Religious Publishing Group.


Ron ElsdonRon Elsdon is an author, speaker, and founder of organizations in the career and workforce development fields. His social activism is expressed through community volunteer work and promoting a range of social causes. His published works include: How to Build a Nontraditional Career Path: Embracing Economic Disruption (Praeger, 2014); editor of Business Behaving Well: Social Responsibility, from Learning to Doing (Potomac Books, 2013); editor of Building Workforce Strength: Creating Value through Workforce and Career Development (Praeger, 2010); and author of Affiliation in the Workplace: Value Creation in the New Organization (Praeger, 2003). He holds a doctorate in chemical engineering from Cambridge University, a master’s in career development from John F. Kennedy University, and a bachelor’s in chemical engineering from Leeds University. Ron can be reached at ronelsdon@gmail.com. His web site is www.elsdon.com.

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