It's the time of year when you not only have visions of sugarplums, but of yourself carving a turkey at a soup kitchen or handing out stockings filled with presents to homeless children.

This year, try something different: Volunteer for a behind-the-scenes job--sort cans at a soup kitchen, answer the phones at a homeless shelter, accept items being left at a donation center.

"A lot of people want to work in soup kitchens [during the holidays]. They get upset because they can't do the one thing they wanted to do. They say . . . there wasn't anything to do, and that's not true," says Kimberly O'Donnell, executive director of the Alexandria Volunteer Bureau, which matches volunteers with the organizations that need them.

Nonprofit organizations providing human services see a spike in their volunteer numbers between Thanksgiving and New Year's. Even so, they often have trouble convincing people to take on the more mundane, but equally important, volunteer jobs. Judy Sklar, director of community resources for Davis Memorial Goodwill Industries in D.C., encourages volunteers to "evaluate what you're doing and why you want to do it, and what [the client] needs. Then it can be a win-win situation," she says.

Every agency has its stockpile of tales about well-meaning but misguided philanthropists: the group that would give its time only if it could cook, the collector who wanted to bring a limited-edition toy to the shelter to show the children, the well-off family that wanted to host Christmas dinner in its home so a homeless family could see how the other half lives, the organization that wanted to bus underprivileged children to a country club to see Santa.

These stories, none unique to a single agency, underscore how much volunteers want to work directly with the people receiving their help.

"So many people who want to volunteer during the holidays want one-on-one interaction with a person in need," O'Donnell said. "But those in need don't really want the world to know they're in need. It's a matter of pride."

Many people think organizations need more help during the holidays because of the extra parties, presents and feasts that they offer to their clients. But some agencies face their rushes at other times of the year. Shelters and hypothermia clinics tend to be busiest in January and February, when the weather is coldest. Food banks rely on food drives during the summer, when their stocks are lowest and children are not receiving the subsidized breakfasts and lunches that they get in school.

For these and other reasons, the Salvation Army has made "Need knows no season" its theme, says Renee Dawson, social services coordinator for the Prince George's County Salvation Army. "You need every day. Need doesn't know if it's a holiday or if it's not a holiday."

Volunteer opportunity information: Greater D.C. Cares, 202-289-7378, or on the Web,