The benefits of volunteering are well-established: It’s good for your body, your mind, and your employment prospects, not to mention, you know, society as a whole. But finding the right opportunity, the one that you’ll commit to and integrate into your life as seamlessly as a solid workout routine or cooking regimen, can be incredibly overwhelming—which might be one reason Americans are doing less volunteering.
“Often the hardest part is the first step,” says Joseph Kahne, a professor of education at the University of California Riverside, who focuses on civic engagement. “From our research, we definitely find once people start getting involved, they tend to want to be involved more.”
Based on Kahne’s research and advice, here are some ways to make that first step easier:
Kahne says volunteers generally fall into three categories:
Personally responsible citizens are conscientious community members who donate their time and energy on an individual level—say, by driving an elderly neighbor to the grocery store, or regularly donating blood. If you feel like you’re already contributing, even though sometimes there’s no organization attached to your work, you’re probably a personally responsible citizen.
Participatory citizens engage in group efforts such as park clean-ups, food drives, and tutoring programs, often helping to organize and enable the aforementioned “personally responsible citizens” for their efforts. If you’re eager to help, and want the benefits of an existing program and the knowledge and company of other volunteers, this is you.
Justice-oriented citizens are driven by a societal problem, and often engage with the causes of the issue, as well as its symptoms. For example, a justice-oriented citizen concerned with homelessness might not just help out at a shelter; they also might advocate for new housing policy. If you’re outraged by a public policy, and hellbent on changing it, you’re probably justice-oriented.
“In our society, I think we need all those forms of participation,” says Kahne. It’s all about finding the one that feels right to you.
For many of us, the lowest barrier to entry will be to join an existing effort. If you have a friend who already volunteers, Kahne recommends tagging along. If you’re a member of a religious institution or a social club, see if it has existing programs you can sign up for.
“It’s socially awkward to show up [to volunteer] at a given organization,” he says. “Doing it with a friend is a good way to lessen that, make it more comfortable or more fun.”
There might be no better way to end your volunteering search in an overwhelmed heap than to type “volunteering opportunities” into Google and seeing what comes up. Instead, focus on where you’re driven to make a difference—whether that means just a certain part of your city or neighborhood, or a specific issue such as immigration or domestic abuse.
Perhaps most importantly, think about what you like to do and how you like to do it. That’s how you’ll find the commitment that keeps you coming back. If you’re the social sort of person who prefers intramural sports over a solitary workout, for example, consider that when you embark on volunteering.
“Reflect on what feels attractive, what feels fun,” says Kahne. If your entire Instagram feed is populated by dogs, maybe you should consider volunteering at an animal shelter. If you can’t wait to get into the kitchen and cook all weekend, a local soup kitchen might benefit from your skills. Love to read and write? A high school student might need a second set of eyes on her research paper.
It’s true that if you’re an accountant, you could probably be of great service to a non-profit in your area—but it might be the last thing you want to do with your free time. Similarly, if you’re a busy parent, you might favor volunteering with other adults over spending more time with kids.
“Avoid a competency trap,” advises Kahne. Instead, volunteering can be a great way to engage in a hobby or exercise a skill set you don’t often get to use. Kahne cites enthusiasm about sports, carpentry, and the simple capacity to care for others as great virtues in the world of volunteering. Use your volunteering time to try something different from your everyday life.
Once you’ve narrowed down what you’d like to do, whether it’s to volunteer at an animal shelter, teach English as a second language, or join a local beach cleanup, it will be a lot easier to find your volunteering gig. And while you can start that search online with national databases such as Catchafire, All for Good, Golden, and Volunteer Match in the US and Do-it in the UK, remember that local opportunities might not show up there.
“So much of contributing politically and civically is local in its nature,” says Kahne. Look for schools, shelters, and other organizations in your neighborhood. Many city government sites have pages dedicated to volunteering as well.
You can also donate your time and energy from the comfort of your couch—a form we often forget, but Kahne says can be plenty meaningful, whether its by making phone calls on behalf of an organization, mapping a humanitarian crisis, or editing a website.
As Vicki Sellick recently wrote for Quartz, online volunteerism is likely to grow in popularity, just as working remotely has.
Whether you find an opportunity online or outside, Kahne says the most important thing is to just give it a shot. “Often, you don’t have to make a commitment beyond the immediate engagement,” says Kahne.
But once you find the right thing, you’ll probably want to.