3 surprising ways to volunteer your professional skills
Last updated September 21, 2021
We see you, do-gooder. You’re a busy, talented professional, so lucky and you know it. You really want to give back. Volunteering sounds so great! We are guessing that when you think of volunteering, though, you have some very specific ideas. Serving meals in a soup kitchen, maybe. Or a clean-up day in your local park.
These are wonderful options that fall into the category of direct service. They might not fit into your schedule, though. Or maybe they just don’t appeal to you, which is okay.
But there are many other ways to volunteer. They may or may not actually surprise you, but they might open your mind—and maybe your world, and maybe someone else’s world too.
Pitch your own ideas
A volunteering opportunity doesn’t need to be laid out by an organization as a wish or a need. If you have an idea, run with it. Find a group and suggest it. And don’t be afraid to go niche. Taylor Skillin, founding member of St. Anthony’s Young Professionals Council and executive assistant to the CEO at Zendesk, recalls a coding workshop specifically for trans people that was presented to the nonprofit, not the other way around. “If you’re thinking, I have this skill set that’s very relevant in San Francisco, and it would help a specific population, then pitch it,” he says.
A volunteering opportunity doesn’t need to be laid out by an organization as a wish or a need. If you have an idea, run with it.
In the tech lab at St. Anthony’s, Skillin taught a blogging workshop. While he is not “some incredible writer,” he says, the tangential skills he offered were meaningful. Do not underestimate the value, he says, of knowing your way around a mouse and a keyboard and an office. He was able to teach people how to sign up for an account and how to post inline images in a blog post. For a seasoned working professional, these might seem like low-level skills, but they can also open up worlds of self-expression and communication for someone else.
Be yourself—your professional self
Put all your skills out there. This is a natural extension of pitching your own ideas. Sometimes direct service might seem like a poor fit to highly skilled professionals because they know they can offer more, and often the kind of more that would be expensive for an organization to purchase: consulting, writing press releases, anything in the engineering realm, plumbing or electrical work, contracting.
Or how about stunningly beautiful paper-art window displays? Or a large treasure map with erupting volcanoes, or a huge fifteenth-anniversary paper cake? These are things that Reina Takahashi offers to 826 Valencia, a nonprofit that supports under-resourced students in developing their writing skills and helps teachers inspire students to write. “She volunteers her excellence and her expertise in paper folding,” says Lila Cutter, volunteer coordinator at 826 Valencia. “She made gigantic boats and candles for our 15th anniversary. She really brings a whimsical spirit to 826.”
It’s important for nonprofits to have opportunities teed up when highly skilled people want to connect. 826 had actually cited window displays as a need on its volunteering form. But if a nonprofit or organization doesn’t have something listed that you think you would be good at—offer yourself up.. As Skillin says: “Don’t be deterred if it isn’t listed on the menu of a website that gets updated every three months because they don’t have a webmaster or whatever the term is in 2018.”
Go the remote route
In many cases, you don’t need to show your beautiful face to help. Hell, you don’t have to get out of bed if you don’t want to, although I don’t recommend this. With website work, help with logos and other design projects, branding or other creative work, you can do your thing from wherever you live or work and offer an invaluable assist. When Skillin was digital media lead at St. Anthony’s, he would reach out to highly skilled friends and ask: “Our homepage is broken. Can you get in the back end and fix it for us?”
At 826 Valencia, students do field trips in which they write and record podcasts, all with the help of volunteer tutors. “After the field trip ends, that’s where our amazing audio-editing volunteers come in,” says Cutter. Often from afar. Expert audio producers, who might be living all the way across the country in NYC, edit those student podcasts into “a beautiful final piece” that goes up on the 826 Valencia Soundcloud page, Message in a Bottle.
Then there’s the example of photography. How does an organization promote or raise funds for next year’s event if the last was documented—not so successfully—by, say, a well-intended director of programming with an iPhone? “It’s such an easy thing for me to spend two hours and shoot an organization’s gala, fundraiser, and they’ve got photos for a year,” says Skillin. St. Anthony’s can still use images that Skillin shot a couple years ago. “It’s extremely rewarding,” he says, “to see that stuff still in the wild that was so low-effort at the time.”