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  • Writer's pictureFelicity Neeson

11 things nonprofit employees wish students knew before they came to volunteer

I volunteered extensively throughout school and university. I credit these experiences with teaching me resilience, compassion, confidence and effective communication. When I later worked at a nonprofit and supported student volunteers, I often said that my volunteering experiences shaped the person I am today.

I would regularly receive phone calls from teachers looking for hands-on volunteer experiences for their students. In the last 10 years, the red tape surrounding student volunteering has increased significantly and many teachers are finding it incredibly difficult to find opportunities for their students. Despite many nonprofits being under-resourced and in need of extra help, it is not always as straightforward as simply getting the students to show up.

I interviewed 12 nonprofit employees from a range of organizations including The Salvation Army, St Vincent de Paul Society, YGAP, Victoria University, Caritas Australia, Edmund Rice Services, Cagliero Project and Doxa (Australia), to get their thoughts on what they wished students knew before they came to volunteer.

1. Do your research

A little bit of research goes a long way. Familiarise yourself with the mission and values of the organisation to make sure they are a good fit. It is also helpful to ensure you are reaching out through the right channels (e.g. emailing the volunteer coordinator rather than a random employee).

"I’d encourage students to have a read of the organisation’s website, especially their work areas, projects and values. Students can start to think about which skills they wish to develop and programs they would like to assist with."
Sophie Moore, Legal Projects Officer at Victoria University

"Not all types of volunteering will suit each person – it is important that each student find what suits their capacity and interests."
Lauren Hichaaba, Director of the Cagliero Project

"One off engagements can do more damage to some community members. Some preparation is needed around learning who you might encounter, why each person is involved in the program/experience, what to do if something goes wrong or you feel unsafe and how to ensure the community members the students are volunteering with are safe."
Nonprofit employee

2. Be clear on your goals

Why would you like to volunteer and what are you hoping to achieve? What skills do you have to offer? Being clear on these things will help you to find an organisation that is a values match for you.

"I’d encourage each student, with their teacher’s support, to get really clear on who they want to be at the end of the volunteer placement and the skills they wish to have."
Sophie Moore, Legal Projects Officer at Victoria University

"The best volunteers are clear on their role and why they want to do that role before they commit to it."
Calvin Frith, Former Head of Global Programs at YGAP

3. Make it as easy as possible for the nonprofit to take you on

In my previous role, it was during the busiest moments where I most needed volunteers that I was least likely to take new ones on as I felt I didn’t have the necessary time to train them. If you are organised, keep your emails prompt, clear and to the point, and take the time to understand the volunteer induction process, then you will have a lot more success at securing opportunities.

"Everyone wants to volunteer around Christmas. Find out other times so you can really benefit the org, especially when they have no volunteers."
Michael Walter, Former Cadetship Program Manager at Doxa (Australia).

"I’d also encourage teachers to request documents from the organisation – such as volunteer policies – so students can get an understanding of responsibilities on both sides and figure out how often the organisation hosts student volunteers, or volunteers in general."
Sophie Moore, Legal Projects Officer at Victoria University

"Supervision of under 18 year olds complicates the whole thing. If you can state straight up that the school will hold duty of care (whether with teachers or other adults supervising) and will be present for the whole time you may find that it will be easier to secure volunteer placements."
Michael Walter, Former Cadetship Program Manager at Doxa (Australia).

4. Use your initiative

It is an incredibly valuable skill to be able to notice things that need to be done and offer before you are asked. The more students use their initiative, the more likely it is that they will be provided with extra responsibility and even the potential of paid employment in the future.

"We interviewed a university student whose studies and skills matched with a research project we were delivering. She was inducted entirely online and fitted seamlessly into our team. At the end of her placement, she was offered a casual role at the centre and has been working with us ever since."
Nonprofit employee

"Don’t be shy about offering to do something you see needing to be done – initiative is invaluable, so long as you are willing/won’t take offense to hear a ‘no’ for an answer if the task hasn’t been done for a particular reason!"
Nonprofit staff member

"We had one awesome volunteer who was our caretaker that resided in one of our properties who just left. She was able to build relationships and rapport with the young people but also had boundaries and didn’t get too friendly. She was communicative with staff but was also very independent with awesome initiative."
Sarah Maxwell, Youth Case Manager at The Salvation Army

5. Remember that the ‘unglamorous’ tasks are still important

Administration tasks like photocopying and filing allow nonprofit employees to focus on relationships. Volunteering in an office environment is also an excellent opportunity for the students to build relationships with the staff members and get to know the various roles and inner workings of the organisation.

"Community and social service work is often relational and this takes time. Students are often (if doing a once off/one day volunteer gig) not able to have developed relationships with people the organisation supports – but they are able to assist with routine or regular tasks in an organisation that may get de-prioritised because staff are prioritising relationships, so this assistance gives greater flexibility to staff if volunteers have some of the basics covered."
Nonprofit employee

"Volunteers also enable us to do more work and extend the reach of our work into places where we wouldn’t otherwise be able to exist."
Romina Martiniello, Social & Ecological Justice Animator at Caritas Australia

"Volunteers who do well are keen to get involved in strategy, question processes and decisions, and work really really hard on mundane tasks as well as the exciting strategy and whiteboard style convos."
Calvin Frith, Former Head of Global Programs at YGAP

6. Have an open mind

Almost everyone I spoke to shared this as a key piece of advice. Whether you are volunteering in an office or with people experiencing disadvantage, it is important to remember that people are complex and compassion is key.

"Our most successful volunteers are those who are open-minded and come with a willingness to learn. It is also important that volunteers are willing to be generous in sharing their own knowledge and insights, so that learning and growth is always two-way and mutually beneficial."
Romina Martiniello, Social & Ecological Justice Animator at Caritas Australia

"It is good to have a gentle curiosity, but plenty of tact – treating interaction like you would in a social setting in some regards (rather than asking someone who is being supported ‘why are you homeless? Or why are you a refugee? But rather showing interest in them as a person (what sports/activities do you enjoy? Where in Australia is your favourite place to visit?) is a great attitude to bring!"
Nonprofit employee

7. Pre-briefing and debriefing are essential

Many nonprofit organisations work with people experiencing disadvantage. If you have never worked in this space before then it can be quite confronting. It is very important to gather together with your teacher and fellow students and talk through what you might see, hear, feel and experience so that you are prepared.

"A student from a very wealthy school and wealthy background attended an Edmund Rice Camp and was exposed to poverty which was very difficult because he had absolutely no idea poverty existed. He was overcome and on the first day of camp just cried so much because he couldn’t grasp what he was being exposed to. He never volunteered with us again. I don’t think he was prepared well. He came from a school culture where he had everything and should give back which put him in very exposed position."
Mark Monahan, Executive Officer at Edmund Rice Services - Mt Atkinson

"Working with a vulnerable community, many clients present with mental health conditions - this may be present when students volunteer or it may not be. Any understanding of how mental health conditions can impact a person's life and the opportunities one has, will help many understand the barriers our clients face."
Nonprofit employee

"I connected with a teacher that worked with me to prepare some students to volunteer at Edmund Rice Camps. The students attended prepared by the teacher and myself, had a great experience and the teacher checked in with them when they returned. The checking in afterwards by the teacher ensured excellent support. These students continued to volunteer regularly and set a pathway for others to properly engage."
Mark Monahan, Executive Officer at Edmund Rice Services - Mt Atkinson

8. Treat everyone with dignity and respect

It is an incredible privilege to be welcomed into the world of people experiencing disadvantage. Approaching everyone with dignity and respect can make this a really profound experience for everyone involved.

The primary aim of volunteering is to create a heart for the other. It is truly selfless service.
Lauren Hichaaba, Director of the Cagliero Project

I think, if student volunteers treat people like people, this is so beneficial. Staff are paid to assist/help/be around. Voluntarily being around and assisting and simply being with people who are assisted, can sometimes be a really humanising thing for staff, people who are being supported, and students themselves!
Nonprofit employee

It is really important to ensure that volunteering is ‘other’ centred but to be aware of all the different stake holders at play and ensure that all voices are heard.
Lauren Hichaaba, Director of the Cagliero Project

9. Share your perspective

Everyone I spoke to mentioned how much they benefit from the fresh perspective that student volunteers bring. Don’t be afraid to share your ideas and input, particularly if you are willing to help make them happen!

"Students bring fresh opinions and ideas. They are often exceptionally tech savvy and can assist with marketing and social media. A successful volunteer placement is one where both the org and volunteers learn from each other."
Sophie Moore, Legal Projects Officer at Victoria University

"We can benefit from having the status quo challenged with a fresh pair of eyes!"
Sarah Maxwell, Youth Case Manager at The Salvation Army

"Students bring such a different perspective. They open up a new point of view and bring an enthusiasm and passion that sometimes has been lost in the older members of the organisation."
Lauren Hichaaba, Director of the Cagliero Project

10. Be ready to learn and grow

Approach your volunteering with a growth mindset. If you are open to it, there are so many skills that you can learn that will help you in your future career and life.

"Volunteering is an excellent way of building soft skills, such as stakeholder management, professionalism and office related skills (e.g how to manage emails, phone calls, calendar invites, printers etc). Students often don’t get a chance to learn these skills in a school context."
Sophie Moore, Legal Projects Officer at Victoria University

"As a large and diverse organisation, volunteering with us is also a great way to meet new people, make connections and gain a broader appreciation of the many skills required to run an international development agency."
Romina Martiniello, Social & Ecological Justice Animator at Caritas Australia

"A fail fast attitude is needed. If you’re not failing, you’re not putting yourself out there enough."
Calvin Frith, Former Head of Global Programs at YGAP

"Students can benefit by being linked in to networks with loads of opportunities for more great experiences."
Rachel Enright, Former Education Programs Team Leader at St Vincent de Paul Society Vic

11. Never underestimate the impact you will make and receive

I have heard countless stories from people working in the social justice field who first started because of a volunteering experience in high school. Similarly, I met many people who volunteered as an adult after being supported by a nonprofit as a young person.

"You may never know the extent of the impact. Years later, a person who was on the receiving end of volunteer's efforts, may have the opportunity to be a leader in their own community/ family and may draw on what they liked from their interactions with a student volunteer for inspiration."
Rachel Enright, Former Education Programs Team Leader at St Vincent de Paul Society Vic

"At times, we have student volunteers returning to our organisation years after they volunteered with their school. They enjoyed it as a 16 year old and have returned in their 20's and 30's to be a part of the volunteer team on a regular basis. We built the connection and relationship years ago and it resonates with many."
Nonprofit employee

Thank you to all the nonprofit employees who contributed their wisdom and advice. Have we missed anything? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

At Yellow Arrow we are passionate about connecting students with meaningful service learning opportunities. If you would like to keep the conversation going and connect with other people working in this space, click here to join our Service Learning Network.

Photo credits:

Laptop photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

Office photo by TienDat Nguyen on Unsplash

Tree planting photo by Anna Earl on Unsplash

People photo by Alexis Brown on Unsplash

Post its photo by UX Indonesia on Unsplash

People at laptops photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash

Human kindness photo by Matt Collamer on Unsplash

People on step photo by Kate Kalvach on Unsplash

Woman and child photo by Sergiu Vălenaș on Unsplash

Women at window photo by on Unsplash

Men on hill photo by Matheus Ferrero on Unsplash

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