For several years, I spent a Sunday in December with dozens of other people at a Los Angeles community center, assembling meals for low-income families. We worked shoulder to shoulder with friends and strangers, making jokes and singing along with the carols blasting from the speakers. Then we formed a greeting line, offering hugs and handshakes to everyone who walked through the gate. It was both volunteer opportunity and party, and it was a perfect way to introduce my young children to the benefits of altruism.
Each year, I left the holiday party with a desire to become more involved with the organization, which works year-round for the community. Yet a return to the regular schedules and responsibilities of my work and my children’s school made it difficult to make a long-term commitment. Eventually, I was able to make volunteering a consistent practice by connecting with local organizations on a project-by-project basis.
Many short-term volunteer events are scheduled during the last months of the year, taking advantage of the season when generosity, kindness and connection are promoted with verve. This creates an imbalance seen throughout the nonprofit community.
“As far as the holidays go, there is generally a surplus of volunteers,” said Anji Williams, director of Punk Rock Marthas, a nonprofit youth volunteer organization in Hollywood. “But in January, soup kitchen shifts will have spaces. The unhoused are hungry every day.”
Williams and the Punk Rock Marthas make a habit of year-round work. Partnering with other nonprofits, they’ve cleaned beaches, made sandwiches and handed out a range of items, including summer reading material and hoodies for the unhoused. “We get people who are genuinely interested in their community,” Williams said. “This is not just something that looks good on a college application.”
The creation of a consistent and satisfying volunteer practice is an intentional and ongoing process. If you’d like to extend your good deeds beyond the dark days of winter, here are a few ideas to help you realize that goal.
Understand that it’s okay to get something out of it
Experts say volunteers should not be expected to be impeccably altruistic. “There is this weird belief that people should help one another for the purest of sacrificing motives,” said Mark Snyder, a University of Minnesota psychologist. Volunteers sometimes think: “If they enjoy it, then maybe they are helping for the wrong reason.”
In fact, understanding and building upon non-altruistic reasons for volunteering can fuel more altruistic behavior. According to Snyder, who has spent a career studying prosocial behavior, there are five prime motivations that, when partnered with a yen to do good, can contribute to consistent volunteer service. Getting into college, as Williams mentioned, falls under the category of personal development. The other categories are connection to community; increasing understanding of people, cultures or places; satisfaction of personal values or concerns; and esteem enhancement.
“Volunteers should be encouraged to realize the gains,” he said, “because often, volunteering is hard work. It’s okay to ask, ‘What might I get out of volunteering?’ ” Realizing it’s a two-way street can encourage volunteers to “stick with it longer, be more helpful, make more of a difference, and their physical and mental health will improve. It’s a huge win-win situation.”
Set expectations and think about how you want to spend your time
As satisfying as this work can be, would-be volunteers’ fears of overextending themselves or becoming burdened by tasks can be an obstacle to long-term commitment. Mutual understanding of expectations is beneficial to both the volunteer and the organization. Erin Halley, vice president of marketing and advocacy at VolunteerMatch, a national volunteer-engagement network, recommends mapping out clear goals and establishing “a realistic time commitment and schedule that gives volunteers space for other things in their lives.”
If you’re considering volunteering, Halley said, think not only about how much time you have to spare, but also how you’d like to spend that time. You might, as I did, expand on this line of thinking and ask yourself specific questions: Are you looking for community? Do you want to engage directly with those in need or work on off-site projects, such as data entry or food preparation? Do you want to work inside or outside? Do you want to bring the skills you use in your regular employment to your volunteer work? Do you crave physical labor? Intellectual stimulation? Emotional connection? You may not have all the answers, but just asking the questions often leads to a greater understanding of purpose.
Look for varied or pop-up opportunities
Affinity with a specific mission, such as ending the killing of cats and dogs in shelters or cleaning up the urban environment, can be a great foundation for a long-term practice, but variety can also be an excellent driving factor. Jennifer Levin, co-founder of the Los Angeles grass-roots activist group H.O.D.G. (Hang Out Do Good), describes a strategy that she calls “crop-rotation” activism. “If you do the same thing, the soil gets depleted. That’s why at H.O.D.G., we do lunch drives, blanket collections and other do-gooder stuff, and then we do the politics, which feeds a different part. It really does keep me from getting totally burnt out.”
Online local and national aggregators such as VolunteerMatch can provide information about participation in hygiene-kit assembly, book drives, library sales, coat collections and food pantries. Consider following your favorite nonprofits on social media to stay abreast of pop-up opportunities to do good. Participation in these kinds of events can be a way to test-drive a wide variety of philanthropic organizations and are easy to fit into a busy schedule.
I’ve found that I like the simplicity of these tasks and the way they shut down the worrying part of my brain. Levin understands. “There is a power in underthinking,” she said. “We don’t need to be the experts. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel. We just need to show up and have someone tell us what to do.”
Give yourself time to become engaged
The effect of the work and the rewards you’ll receive from volunteering can be highly personal and variable. Michelle Tonn, executive director of Alexandria House, a transitional home for women and children in Los Angeles, describes being so inspired by the volunteers at her home organization, she began to devote some of her free time to doing outreach at another local nonprofit serving the unhoused.
At first, her motives were simple, she said: “ ‘Yay! I’m a good person.’ It was very superficial.” But when she ran into one of the program participants during the height of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, her perception shifted and deepened her engagement. “I saw his need firsthand and really understood that it’s more than me feeling good. I need to do this.”
Gaining this kind of awareness is a hallmark of an ideal volunteer opportunity, Halley said. “It focuses on why the work matters rather than the specific work,” she said.
Focus on the small things
To paraphrase Joan Baez, action is often the antidote to despair. But when volunteering brings us closer to harsh realities and seemingly insurmountable problems, it is not always easy to keep hope afloat. Completing discrete, helpful tasks and staying focused on the present may offer some relief.
Homelessness is particularly hard to witness, but even as the overall problem defies easy solutions, there are acts of service that make a huge difference. “There are difficulties,” Tonn said. “People are service-resistant. The system is complicated. But everyone needs to eat. Everyone deserves water. I’m easing the suffering on the streets. That’s what I’m doing.”
Recognize informal help that you are giving
Whether it’s due to an expectation of self-sacrifice or a fear of being seen as a humble-bragger, people have a tough time recognizing and taking credit for all we do. That includes what can be termed “informal volunteering.” Driving a carpool, providing child care, shoveling a snowy walk, participating in a neighborhood watch, starting a meal train for friends with a new baby or ailing family member, or even just picking up the trash on your street is volunteer labor that helps create a safer, friendlier, cleaner world.
When I thought back to those long-ago holiday events, which were motivated by a desire to instill in my children the importance (and fun) of doing good, I recalled one party that, along with a cheerful atmosphere of bustle and chaos, offered me the opportunity to hold a baby while his mother enjoyed a cup of coffee. Now, with an empty nest in my future as my youngest child begins the countdown to graduation, I will have even more reason to seek such connection and community, which will help me, as I help others.
Tanya Ward Goodman is the author of the memoir, “Leaving Tinkertown.” She volunteers with SELAH Neighborhood Homeless Coalition, Preserve Bottle Village, and CollegePathLA. Visit her at tanyawardgoodman.com.