THE BLOG

Making A Difference: The World of Giving: Don't Judge a Book (or a Volunteer Opportunity) By Its Cover

04/14/2015 10:59 am ET | Updated Jun 12, 2015

Recently I attended the Tucson Festival of Books (TFOB) both as a presenting author and as a fan of books. TFOB is the fourth largest book festival in the United States and it has only been around for seven years! What I came to recognize while there is you can't judge a book by its cover. Each book tells a unique story no matter how it looks on the outside. Now it might not be written about a topic which interests you, but I would bet there is someone somewhere that would be interested in its subject matter.

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This premise of not judging a book by its cover is also true when working with nonprofit organizations, especially ones that don't look like they need our help. Many of us make assumptions about people, organizations and things. But appearances don't always tell the story. Many of us often think that when a nonprofit organization is well run, it is most likely done by paid professional staff or long trained volunteers and that it doesn't need or, in some cases, want our help. The opposite is usually true.

Let's take a look at this assumption by going back to the Tucson Festival of Books as an example. As a starting point this two day festival which takes place in March has only one paid staff member but garners the support of 1,500 volunteers to make it happen. My guess is most people attending the TFOB assume there is a large staff that makes this event happen because of how well run it is when the opposite is actually true. It was awe inspiring for me to watch volunteers from all walks of life come together to ensure this event takes place. People who had never worked together and didn't know each other, gladly stood side by side to direct people, lift a table, put up a sign, take down a booth and yes, even remove the garbage left by more than 130,000 attendees.

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And they were more than welcoming to me as I joined in the volunteer effort mid-festival after fulfilling my author related responsibilities. The Tucson Festival of Books has a well-run volunteer program open to all and is a shining example of how to effectively incorporate volunteers into the mission of a nonprofit organization.

With National Volunteer Week starting today (April 12), it is important to remember all the things volunteers do. In a world that seems so busy, readers might pause upon learning learn that according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2014, the volunteer rate in the United States was 25.3% or about 62.8 million people. Yes, that is right, 1 out of every 4 Americans volunteered someplace in 2014. Women volunteer at a higher level (28.3%) then men (22%). What might also surprise you is that the most likely age group to volunteer is those between the ages of 35-44 years old with 29.8% of them volunteering. Those individuals in the age group 20-24 volunteer at the lowest level (18.7%) with teenagers ages of 16-19 volunteering at a rate of 26.1%. Other interesting facts included that it does seem as we age, our volunteer participation rate declines. Additionally, married people volunteer at a higher rate than those who never married. And curiously, those individuals with children volunteer at a higher rate than those without children.

Many might scoff at these numbers saying there are many more people who don't volunteer then those that do. But I would counter saying we must stop judging our prospective volunteers by their "covers" and instead all of us need to find a way to reach out and provide opportunities for all who want to volunteer. Let's be creative and share ways that everyone can give back. There are the traditional ways of volunteering such as serving on a committee or board of directors as well as the efforts of all the Little League Baseball Coaches and Soccer Moms, Troop Leaders for local Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts groups and of course, finding ways to feed the hungry through the nationwide network of 200+ food banks that comprise Feeding America.

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What I have long ago learned is that living in this post 9/11 world, many people I encounter on a daily basis want to be Making A Difference® but often don't know where to start. Listed are my top five (5) recommendations for how to volunteer effectively and ensure you are truly Making A Difference®.
1. Don't make assumptions based on appearances of the nonprofit organization. Most need and will welcome volunteers. You just have to offer your help and services. Be persistent.
2. Do your research. It is amazing what you can find by doing a little research online or check out the website of the nonprofit organization to locate a listing of volunteer opportunities. Talk to other volunteers whom I still contend are the best source for information about the opportunities available.
3. When you volunteer, try a new activity; you might enjoy learning how to do something new and meeting new people.
4. Are you too busy to volunteer during traditional office hours, after work or on the weekend? If yes, inquire to the nonprofit organization if they have virtual volunteering opportunities. You can volunteer virtually without leaving your home or office. Think about it this way, if you are an attorney, you might review a contract; if you are a graphic artist, you might create letterhead or an invitation set for an event - all from the comfort of your home or office.
5. Numerous websites and Internet tools have been created to help you find nonprofit organizations looking for volunteers. Check out websites such as Women On Call; Volunteer Match; All For Good to find projects both virtually and in person.

Bonus Tip: Take the day off from work but have a day on! I know paid time off is precious and often saved for family and friend obligations, but why not take one day to change the life of another? Encourage your friends and family members to join you and make it a group affair!

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Bonus Tip #2: Volunteering is not only good for others, but good for you as well! The Corporation for National & Community Service published a study ("The Health Benefits of Volunteering: A Review of Recent Research") showing "a strong relationship between volunteering and health: those who volunteer have lower mortality rates, greater functional ability, and lower rates of depression later in life than those who do not volunteer." Know that your "service" may meet a tangible need, or it may meet a need of the spirit.

In today's fast paced society, it is easy to fall into that trap of making judgments based on appearances. Take the time to figure out what you want to do and identify the nonprofit organizations with which you want to work in order to be Making A Difference®. Ask questions; make inquiries; offer your services. The nonprofit sector needs you!