How to be a (great) volunteer

23rd Apr 2013
Volunteering is an activity usually undertaken through a not-for-profit organisation, which is of community benefit, of the volunteer’s own free will, and for no financial reward. It is also a vehicle for individuals or groups to address human, environmental and social needs. Currently 4.4 million, or more than one in five Australians, are involved in volunteering.

Why do people volunteer?
People will volunteer for a broad variety of reasons. It may be to add something to their own lives (companionship, work, adventure, structure, or travel) or with the express intent of adding to the lives of others (education, skills, caring, practical support). Many older Australians move to volunteering as a way of seeking satisfaction beyond the normal material gains they have received from long years in the workforce. These volunteers are often looking for activities which will have an impact on their soul, offering new and stimulating experiences, different types of relationships, and allowing them, in some cases, to make friends for life.

When shouldn’t you volunteer?
When you are wishing to work over other people, to ‘get them better organised’ or because you think you have all the answers. No-one does, and most volunteers claim to learn more than they teach.

How do you get started?
List your skills, allowing for basic, often unrecognised talents such as ‘dancing with children’, ‘soothing babies’ or ‘don’t mind repetitive and menial tasks’. Try to objectively assess your personality for those traits which can add real value to the volunteering brief – commitment, compassion, sensitivity, enthusiasm, persistence, or tenacity. Think laterally on this one. Then assess your reasons for wishing to volunteer and don’t be afraid to include those reasons which may, on the surface, sound selfish: getting out of the house more, meeting new friends, adding some structure to your day, achieving a sense of self-worth. No-one is 100 per cent altruistic, and these reasons are just as valid as the more philanthropic ones.

Lastly, get practical and list the maximum number of hours per day, week, month or year to which you are prepared to commit – remembering that once the commitment is made, even though this is not paid work, you will have asked an organisation to trust in you. You will need to deliver on this promise.

Attributes of a good volunteer

  • Flexible
  • Adaptable
  • Good at group dynamics
  • Team workers
  • Proactive
  • Sensitive to cross-cultural issues
  • Resilient, particularly if there is conflict or times of difficulty
  • Prepared to make a commitment
  • Willing to learn and share, and don’t assume they have all the answers
  • Possessing a sense of humour
  • Know yourself well enough to select the correct task for your energies and one that matches your values
  • Respectful of the rights, dignity and culture of others

Good volunteers do not

  • Need to direct others
  • Use work as an ego or power trip
  • Feel overtly ‘sorry’ for those they are assisting
  • Treat volunteer tasks as a social outing. It’s not an excuse for a chat – there’s work to be done!

Putting it all together
Having listed your thoughts, now look for connections – is there a recurring theme here? Perhaps your passion is animals, and you are fit and love the outdoors, so animal welfare work is sounding like a possibility. Maybe you are a patient person with strong driving skills, and would consider work driving the disabled or elderly to be a worthwhile task, or perhaps communication skills are your forte, and assisting in public relations work for a startup community organisation will suit you better.

Once you have a fair idea of the type of volunteering you might like, go to the ‘Go Volunteer’ website and punch in your postcode – look at the types of opportunities which exist. This website is a recruitment site for Volunteering Australia, which is the peak body in Australia for organising and promoting volunteering. At you will normally find at least several hundred opportunities in the cities, and proportionately less in regional areas, to get you moving. However, do be aware that although you keep hearing organisations are crying out for volunteers, some actually have too many on their books. Don’t be offended or discouraged if you are not snapped up immediately. It may be that they are top of the list of favoured volunteer organisations, or that your skills simply don’t suit their requirements. Move on and try somewhere else.

Volunteering overseas, sometimes called voluntourism, is all about giving something back while you travel. Overseas volunteer programs can run for anything from one week to a year. Voluntourism is the perfect way to gain an in-depth understanding of the places you visit, while helping people, communities or the environment. A good place to start is to think about your skills, interests and abilities. 

Environmental projects

Volunteering to help the environment usually requires you to be in good physical shape. Earthwatch Institute offers volunteer opportunities for people who wish to be involved in environmental scientific research and education. You can assist scientists with their field work, and many of the projects do not require any previous experience or specialist knowledge. If you want to stay closer to home Conservation Volunteers offers environmental conservation projects in Australia and New Zealand.

Community projects

If trekking through national parks or tagging turtles isn’t your cup of tea, you might want to take a look at the Australian Volunteers International website. Australian Volunteers International looks for people with skills, from business professionals to qualified trades-people, so mature volunteers are always welcome. It offers projects which put your skills to use, many of which are based in building communities and helping individuals. Australian Business Volunteers (ABV) is an organisation where most of the volunteers are either retired or self-employed people who have the time to share their expertise. You apply with your resume, and ABV will place you in a volunteer position where your skills can be put to the best use.

Something more adventurous

If you are looking for a project off the beaten path, and you are in good physical shape, then International Volunteers for Peace might be the organisation for you. They offer over 1000 projects in all different areas, but many are in remote locations. The website is geared more towards younger travellers, but they are very happy to have mature volunteers apply.

Things to think about

Different volunteer organisations will offer different facilities and extras. Some projects will come with meals and accommodation, others won’t. Some projects can offer you pocket money, others can barely afford to keep themselves running. It is also important to look into how much the position will cost. Some organisations ask for a token administration fee, others request a larger donation to the project before you can help out, and very few will cover your travel to and from the volunteer position. Taking out travel health insurance is also important, as most volunteer organisations can only offer you basic cover, if any, and if you get hurt or sick you may wish to be able to return home without mortgaging your house.

Volunteering overseas can be an incredibly rewarding experience, but it is important to research all the options first.

This article is an edited excerpt from Get a New Life: how to change the way you live by Kaye Fallick. Order your copy of Kaye’s book online


A short list of some UK based  organisations that could link you up with volunteer work.

OneWorld International
OneWorld is a community of over 1,000 organisations  working for social justice based around an extensive website. The jobs section   lists vacancies from organisations all over the world and also has links to other vacancy lists such as those issued by the UK Government’s Department for International Development (DFID) and British NGOs for Development (BOND).

do-it is an online database of volunteer opportunities both in the UK and abroad.

A website with current vacancies in UK charities including jobs in fundraising, management and international development.

Guardian Unlimited jobs
This website of current vacancies advertised in the Guardian newspaper has a search facility and a dedicated charities section.