The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

25 ways to volunteer around Washington

The Manna Food Center in Gaithersburg needs volunteers to sort donated food and pack boxes to deliver to clients. (Amanda Voisard For The Washington Post)

This story was originally published on Aug. 11, 2011. It has been updated.

The urge to volunteer has a funny way of striking just as we’re about to carve the turkey, head to the mall or trim the tree.

Now, imagine your alarm went off today, long before the temperature drops, when volunteering can mean giving a fraction of your time to park cleanups or garden work, playing with kittens or lending a hand to lost tourists on the Mall.

For some, volunteering is about serving those in need, while for others, volunteer jobs can help polish a resume, expand a group of friends or be a way to access the arts for free. And newcomers can make friends at a large volunteer event organized by One Brick D.C. without a regular commitment.

So if you’ve always wanted to help out at a food pantry, work with shelter animals or even pour beers, now’s your chance. We’ve got 25 ideas to get you started.

Good Samaritan

Whether you’re an enviable cook or have a way with clothes, there are various ways to lend your skills and your time to a worthy cause.

1. Suited for Change

Have a flair for fashion? You can help low-income women pick out interview and work suits and accessories from Suited for Change’s D.C. boutique of donated apparel. Volunteers also are needed for workshops on work and life skills. 202-293-0351.

2. Hands on D.C.

Spruce up a school as a volunteer for Hands on D.C., which completes hundreds of projects for about 30 schools in the city. Past projects include painting colorful murals, adding a sandbox to a playground, building flower boxes and painting locker rooms. Registration is required. Email

3. Bread for the City

There are so many ways to help out at D.C.’s Bread for the City, which helps reduce the burden of poverty for local residents by providing food, clothing, medical care, and legal and social services. Sort clothing donations, bag items in the food pantry, help out at the diaper program or even tend a rooftop garden. 202-265-2400.

4. Ronald McDonald House Charities

Volunteers help at two homes for families with sick children — in Fairfax and Northeast Washington — by tidying the houses, making sure guests are comfortable, doing administrative tasks or handiwork, working at special events and cooking meals. 703-698-7080 or 202-529-8204.

5. Bright Beginnings

Lead story time as a volunteer reader for Bright Beginnings, a nonprofit that provides preschool and child care for homeless children. Bright Beginning volunteers also help sponsor field trips for students, clean up the center, help parents with workforce training and more. 202-842-9090.

6. Manna Food Center

This Montgomery County-based food bank needs volunteers to sort donated food and pack boxes to deliver to clients. Family packing days — participants must be ages 7 and older — happen five times a month. 301-424-1130.

Culture Vulture

With festivals and the arts, giving can reap rewards. Usher at a theater or arts center and see a show free of charge. Pitch in at a festival, and hang out after your shift.

7. Summerfest D.C.

This outdoor festival at Navy Yard will serve up to 70 beers on June 2 and 3, and volunteers are needed as beer and wine pourers, ticket scanners and cup distributors. Commit to a four-hour shift and receive such perks as free entry to another session, a pizza lunch and a “Brew Crew” T-shirt. Hardly sounds like work to us — and another BrewFest beer festival is happening Sept. 15, in case you want to plan ahead. (Snallygaster beer festival, on Oct. 13, also takes volunteers.) Email

8. Signature Theatre

Show theatregoers to their seats as an usher at this Arlington theater, and you can view the show for free. Signature Theatre’s nearly 800 volunteer ushers perform such tasks as collecting tickets and greeting patrons. One orientation session is required. 703-820-9771. Email

9. Hostelling International

This downtown D.C. hostel needs volunteers to act as tour guides, leading out-of-towners to special events around Washington including arts and monuments tours. In turn, volunteers get to meet people from different countries and backgrounds. Other in-the-know locals can act as concierges for hostel guests. 202-737-2333. Email

10. Cultural Tourism D.C.

This is an only-in-D.C. sort of volunteering opportunity: become a Cultural Tourism D.C. Ambassador during Passport D.C.’s annual Around the World Embassy Tour in May. You’ll work at embassies or at info booths in Dupont Circle (and get a T-shirt out of the deal). Volunteers can also participate in other events throughout the year, such as WalkingTown D.C. and Porchfest. 202-661-7581. Email

11. The Phillips Collection

This Washington museum enlists art-information volunteers who greet visitors; Phillips Music volunteers who assist Sunday concerts; a variety of departmental volunteers who help with research and clerical work; and more. All receive training and are asked to commit to a year. In exchange, volunteers get behind-the-scenes glimpses of the museum along with invites to special events and badges for free or discounted access to such museums as New York’s Museum of Modern Art and Baltimore Museum of Art.

12. The Kennedy Center

If you can’t commit to the regular time commitment it takes to be a “Friend of the Kennedy Center” volunteer, look into the festival/event volunteer program. You’ll pitch in during special events such as the Artes De Cuba festival, an Instrument Petting Zoo with the National Symphony Orchestra or the annual Opera in the Outfield program at Nationals Park. Volunteering more than 60 hours in one year means benefits such as free ticket offers to Kennedy Center performances.

Passionate about animals?

Feed shelter animals or tarantulas, run with the dogs or hang with the butterflies — the options abound.

13. Humane Rescue Alliance

Volunteers meet weekly at local parks to run with adoptable shelter dogs as part of the PACK (People & Animal Cardio Klub) program. You can also sign up to provide basic care for animals, including sweeping and preparing food, at one of two D.C. shelters; and help socialize animals. 202-723-5730.

14. National Museum of Natural History

A passion for science and tolerance for a little heat are all you need to guide visitors through the D.C. museum’s popular butterfly pavilion, or you can pitch in at the Orkin Insect Zoo and help with public tarantula feedings. A one-year Insect Ambasador stint working 8 hours a month is requested. 202-633-1077.

15. Black Hill Visitor Center

Pontoon boat captain is one of the volunteer jobs available at this Montgomery County park: The gig involves driving a boat and leading tours of the lake. Other Black Hill Visitor Center volunteers serve as bluebird nest box monitors, native plant gardeners, and as helpers during special events such as Monarch Fiesta Day and Mud Fest. 301-528-3482. Email

16. The National Zoo

Volunteer opportunities change often at the zoo and can include coveted jobs working directly with animal keepers or interpreter positions for engaging the public in exhibits. An interest in science and animals is a must, and so is time. An interpreter job, for example, requires a commitment of three shifts a month for a year, and a lengthy orientation involves mandatory classroom and online training sessions. 202-633-3025.

17. Friends of Homeless Animals

Take dogs in the Loudoun County no-kill shelter for walks on weekends, or work at fundraising events, play with the shelter’s cats and work at the Chantilly thrift store that helps fund FOHA. No time commitment is required. 703-385-0224.

18. Animal Welfare League of Montgomery County

Feline fans have their pick of the litter when it comes to helping out at this no-kill cat shelter in Gaithersburg. There’s a “Cat Crew Team” that feeds kitties and scoops litter and a “Cat Enrichment Team” that spends quality time with cats and gets to know their likes and dislikes. Or go more hands-off by volunteering in the pet food bank or helping out with the center’s bookkeeping. 301-740-2511.


Many parks enlist volunteers for an assortment of tasks, from leading garden tours to keeping things in line at the monuments, and others plan park cleanups. But if you’re eager to get your hands dirty, hit a farm.

19. Gray Ghost Winery

Get a peek at how wine is made at this Amissville winery, where volunteers help with the grape harvest each fall. The winery hosts harvest days in September and October —

all on weekend mornings beginning at dawn. In exchange for picking grapes, breakfast and lunch is provided, and you can stay to watch the grape processing and have a taste. Visit the winery in person through August to sign up. 540-937-4869.

20. Little Falls Watershed Alliance

Join one of this organization’s monthly cleanups along Little Falls Parkway and streams in this Bethesda watershed or help on regular hunts for invasive plants. The events are the second Saturday of each month and younger children are allowed with parents, making these ideal family outings. Middle school kids can do this by themselves if parents drop them off and sign a waiver. Email

21. Common Good City Farm

This Northwest Washington community farm provides 5,000 pounds of fresh produce a year to the community and teaches gardening skills and nutrition tips to low-income locals. City Farmer Volunteers, who must commit to coming weekly in the same time slot for at least 12 weeks, plant seeds, build planting beds, weed, and assist with other urban farming tasks. 202-559-7513. Email

22. National Park Service

If you can tolerate the elements — and tourists — the Park Service looks regularly for volunteers on the Mall, as well as at other national parks. The Volunteers-In-Parks program assigns individuals and groups to work alongside park rangers at monuments all over D.C., from high-profile sites such as the Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial and Old Post Office to more obscure spots such as the Titanic Memorial Park.


Do you have a knack for teaching children or adults? Mentors, guides, teachers and givers need apply.

23. Literacy Volunteers and Advocates

This Washington organization promotes literacy, including math and computer literacy, and enlists tutors for such jobs as teaching basic computer skills and applying for jobs online. Others might offer assistance as a daytime classroom aide. Training is provided. 202-387-1772. Email

24. Facets

This Fairfax County-based organization, which helps low-income people, has myriad volunteer-staffed programs, including a food pantry. One particularly worthy undertaking: community-based programs for youths, such as Homework Help, Computer Lab and a reading club. Volunteers for these programs work one hour a week for either the semester or the entire school year. 703-352-5090.

25. Girls on the Run

This organization encourages healthful living and positive goals for elementary school and middle school-age girls through running, and volunteers are their coaches. Over the course of a season, coaches lead girls through two practices a week for a weekly time commitment of approximately four hours; the 10-week course ends with a 5K. Other volunteer positions are available, too, and running experience isn’t necessary. A training session is required. 202-607-2288.