Whether you are part of a work team, family, or social circle looking to make a positive impact, engaging in a transformational volunteer experience takes more than just showing up. To help share best practices, I teamed up with Pamela Hawley at UniversalGiving to share some best practices on team-based volunteering.
With over 50 years of collective experience designing volunteer programs for individuals, nonprofits, and companies, we know a couple things about the nuances of volunteering with a team, and how to connect to experiences that actually make the world better AND create a positive experience for you and your teammates.
Here are 8 steps to connect into truly impactful volunteer experiences as a team:
1. Define Your Intentions
Why do you want to volunteer? Is it purely altruistic, or do you have some other motivations? It is truly OK to be selfish in your service, provided you are open and honest about it. Teams, especially from companies, tend to volunteer for the purpose of bonding as a team, building new skills, or building customer empathy. Social groups and family groups tend to have more altruistic motivations, but even these are typically with the desire to have a bonding experience and to do something memorable.
No matter your intention, have a conversation or white boarding session with your team and talk about the following before you pick a project:
- What does success look like for us as a team?
- What does success look like for each of us independently?
- What do each of us hope to learn?
- Why are we doing this?
2. Audit Your Strengths and Weaknesses
Before you roll your eyes thinking that this is getting a little excessive for a small volunteering project, we urge you to think again. One of the leading barriers to progress for social impact organizations, nonprofits, and schools is a lack of access to talent and expertise. This is why the Experteering movement is gaining so much attention. Your team’s skills have the potential to be catalytic to an organization. We see a lot of teams default to manual service projects like park cleanup, home building, or school painting. While there is certainly value in those projects, your team might be able to contribute more by focusing on systemic issues, process improvements, or skill training. Knowing what your team is good at – and isn’t good at – will create a more impactful experience for you and your partners. Think about:
- What skills do we have as individuals?
- What skills do we have as a team?
- What industry insights do we have?
- What do we know about processes, systems, and technology that could benefit a partner?
3. Document Your Learning AND Impact Goals
Even if your writing tool is a paper napkin, taking the time to write down your goals increases the chance you’ll reach them. As a team, write down goal-related statements like:
- What can I learn about the organization and the industry I’m volunteering in?
- What can I learn about communication and collaboration by working in a new setting?
- Do I have any personal development areas that I can put into practice while volunteering?
- What would indicate that we’re actually making an impact?
4. Pick a Cause and Find a Partner
Anybody working in volunteering will tell you there is one certainty that is incredibly confusing: Organizations always need more support, yet people always complain that there aren’t enough volunteer projects. What is really happening here is that organizations need so much help, it would be crippling to their organization to take the time to document and advertise all their needs.
This is why placement partners like UniversalGiving and MovingWorlds exist – we’re able to connect people to a project that will truly be impactful to all parties. However, before turning to a matching organization, make sure to think about the strengths you can bring as a team, what you’re hoping to achieve, and also the locations and causes you want to work in.
5. Consider Opportunities and Threats
While it may seem counterintuitive, giving can actually cause harm. Volunteering doesn’t always create a positive impact. Sometimes it makes things worse. When you connect with your hosting organization, have an honest conversation about the opportunities that will truly help, and the potential risks of what could make things worse. Common risks areas include building things that aren’t needed.
However opportunities for positive change, even if not overly exciting, include things like back-office support, conducting trainings, providing coaching, and doing consulting projects. With the right energy put into finding the right match, you can work on a truly impactful project.
6. Develop a Sustainability Plan
No team can volunteer forever. When you start your project, think ahead to your project’s end: How will you make sure the impact start will continue. In the words of Lao Tsu
“…of the best leaders, when the task is accomplished, the people will remark, we have done it ourselves”.
At MovingWorlds, we say that success is something that you measure one year after your project is finished. Talk to your hosting organization to talk about:
- How will you end the project?
- What do you need to document so that the organization and/or another set of volunteers can continue the work after you leave?
7. Find Support and Sponsors
Your volunteer work might catch the attention of your employer, a local corporate sponsor, or even a local grant opportunity. In fact, your boss might pay you to volunteer, or perhaps you can build the business case to launch a new volunteer program at your company.
As a volunteer, you should expect to be changed on an individual level. What is most remarkable about committing to a genuine, reliable, time-encompassing volunteering opportunity is the change that occurs. Contrary to many views, the volunteer is really the person who is changed the most.
It is important however not to disregard the impact that volunteering can have on engaging your networks. It could be the missing link between you and your next employer, or could inspire your circles to engage with the organization in the future. The more that you immerse yourself in your cause and seek to inform others about the volunteer work you are doing, you can engage supporters and sponsors in truly unexpected ways – and multiply your impact even further.
8. Document and Publicize Your Work
Whether you want the attention or not, documenting your experience with pictures, quotes, and an explanation of the impact you created (like this) will achieve a couple really important things:
- It will increase exposure of the organization and mission you worked on
- The very act of documenting forces reflection which instills learning
- It will inspire others to follow in your footsteps
Volunteering as a team can be a profound experience for you, those around you, and also the organization you choose to support. A little extra planning time, as little as an hour or two, is all that’s needed to ensure you engage in an experience that is truly transformational for all. Just remember:
- Define Your Intentions
- Audit Your Strengths and Weaknesses
- Document Your Learning AND Impact Goals
- Pick a Cause and Find a Partner
- Consider Opportunities and Threats
- Develop a Sustainability Plan
- Find Support and Sponsors
- Document and Publicize Your Work
Pamela Hawley is the Founder and CEO of UniversalGiving, an award-winning nonprofit helping people to donate and volunteer with top performing, vetted organizations all over the world.
Mark Horoszowski is the co-founder and CEO of MovingWorlds.org: a platform that helps people volunteer their skills around the world, on their own or through corporate, university, or foundation sponsored programs.