Want to get involved in community service but aren’t quite sure how? Here are some tips and advice.

As the season of giving gets underway, people tend to think about making donations to their favorite charity or to those of the people on their holiday gift list.  And as the head of Community Affairs at Morgan Stanley, I encourage you to be as generous with those contributions as you’re able.

But as you look forward to the year ahead, think about donating in ways that let you make an impact all year long. If you’ve considered regularly volunteering your time to nonprofits and other organizations but worry about how to get started, don’t let that stop you. Perhaps you’re wondering what skills and value you have to offer, or you’re unsure which organization to approach or how much of a commitment you need to make. Here are some tips and advice to help you take that first step.

1.    Zero in on what you’re passionate about. Do you want to help children, for instance, or senior citizens? Do you care deeply about literacy and education, or about helping feed and clothe people in need? If a particular cause is one you yourself care about, chances are you'll put a lot more into it and get a lot more out of it. Your commitment is also likely to be more long-term.

2.    Don’t sell yourself short. Everybody has skills worth sharing. The idea that some folks are more “qualified” or that you need special skills is simply a myth. Consider, for example, organizations that work with children. For many, the one thing they require the most is an adult who’s present and caring. You don’t have to hold an advanced degree or have certain professional credentials (though, of course, it’s great if you do). You just need to show up—and step up.

3.    Choose your organization with care.  Engagement is like dating, you are not going to like all charities equally, so take the time to find a good fit for you.  Are you more like Monica than Phoebe from Friends?  If you are a Monica, look for organizations that already have volunteers.  Check their sites and social media postings to see how they engage volunteers and the kind of work they do. Nonprofits that regularly use volunteers are more likely to be organized and efficient with your time. Either way, remember that the charity is driving a social mission, so look for opportunities where you can help them deliver that mission.  Also remember: It’s not their job to make magical memories for you as a volunteer.

4.    Try dipping in more than a toe. There’s nothing wrong with sitting at a registration desk, painting a mural or stuffing envelopes, but how about moving a little beyond your comfort zone and raising the bar.  Sign on to the committee that’s planning the event, serve as a project leader, or consider lending your "on the job" skills to their work

5.    On the flip side: Be realistic about your calendar. If you’re juggling a demanding job with responsibilities like caring for parents or children, your time may be limited. Why not write a check (or two) or provide some short-term strategic advice to an organization until your circumstances change and you’re in a better position to contribute more regular hours?

6.    Don’t shy away from fundraising: Many people are uncomfortable with the idea of asking other people for money, but for the nonprofit sector this is the lifeblood of their organization. Simply put: no money, no mission. You don’t have to have rich friends or make the uncomfortable ask to be a fundraising volunteer. Think about other skills: event planning, database management, communications, marketing. These are all key elements of a nonprofit’s fundraising efforts.

7.    Join a board, but not just any board. Serving on a board is a terrific way to share your skills and passion in a way that really drives results. But even more than in basic volunteering, fit really matters. Take the time to meet with the board chair and senior staff person.  Make sure you feel comfortable with them and the culture of the board. Think through how hands-on you want to be. Does this board really govern the organization, or does the role seem more focused on fundraising? How many board committees and meetings are there?  And remember that board members have a fiduciary responsibility as well. Regardless of the give/get requirement, you should be willing to donate an amount that hurts just a little bit if you are going to serve on the board.

8.    Leave when it’s time. You’re not always going to love every task you’re conscripted to do. While a certain amount of dissatisfaction is okay, the psychic rewards must outweigh your complaints. At a certain point, it’s acceptable to feel that you’ve given all you’ve got to a particular organization and that you want to move on to another. It’s perfectly okay to break up with your nonprofit. 

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