How to Choose the Best Volunteering Option

No matter how much time you can spare or what stage of life you're in, choices abound.

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Though the economy is hurting, volunteering in the United States jumped last year at the fastest rate in six years. At least 63 million gave of their time and energy. "What we're seeing is the depth of the American spirit and generosity at its best," says Patrick Corvington, CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service, the federal agency that is the nation's largest grantmaker supporting service and volunteering. Many organizations are responding to the demand by offering more service options, creating leadership positions for volunteers, and providing virtual service opportunities to appeal to baby boomers, retirees, and young people.

"Volunteering patterns have changed," says Barb Quaintance, who heads up volunteer and civic engagement at AARP. Boomers, in particular, want more say in how they serve. In 2009, AARP started Create the Good, a network where people and nonprofits can connect around volunteering, "whether you have five minutes, five hours, or five days," says Quaintance.

The challenge for all volunteers is finding the best fit for themselves. "Look to creditable organizations or ones you know," Quaintance recommends. Regardless of your tastes, temperament, or availability, a wide range of opportunities can be found, each offering its own rewards.

Disaster Relief

For those who seek an adrenaline rush and have a flexible schedule, emergency response groups may be an appealing option. The largest is the American Red Cross, which has more than 90,000 disaster workers, 93 percent of whom are volunteers. (Training is conducted at each of the 700-plus chapters.) Some 55,000 volunteers can be deployed nationwide; the rest can be mobilized only within their home area. "Volunteer in your local community first," advises Anita Foster, chief communications officer for the American Red Cross in Dallas. "Getting a call at 3 a.m. to help a family" whose house has burned "is a great way to get your feet wet."

When it's time for the big leagues, the Red Cross depends on volunteers to pick up at a moment's notice. Eleanor Guzik, 71, a nurse practitioner from Ventura, Calif., has been deployed to a number of disasters—a tornado in Georgia, floods in North Dakota, and wildfires in her home state. Helping others when they need it most "is extremely satisfying," Guzik says.

Among other groups providing disaster relief are faith-based organizations like the Salvation Army, which assigns a small subset of its 3.4 million volunteers to emergency response. Since retiring as a Secret Service agent in 1996, Dave Freriks, 71, of Lubbock, Texas, has served as a volunteer at disasters in the American South and West, often for two weeks at a time. His missions have included responding to a fire at a nearby ethanol plant and hurricanes on the Gulf Coast. "It keeps me young, and it keeps me active," Freriks says.

Though the Salvation Army did send volunteers to Haiti after the earthquake in January, it generally responds to U.S. disasters. Volunteers are summoned from the local region to deliver food and drinks to victims and provide emergency shelter, cleanup services, and communications. Catholic Charities USA and Samaritan's Purse an evangelical Christian relief organization, are two other faith-based groups that deploy volunteers when a disaster happens.

A Second Act

The growing trend of skills-based volunteering is "a big change from years past," says Corvington. Baby boomers and others with significant work experience want to segue to new service careers, while nonprofits realize they can leverage this influx of talent to expand their reach. Experience Corps, which has about 2,000 members, connected retired Budget Rent A Car executive Bill Schultz, 65, with an elementary school to help teach children to read in St. Paul, Minn. "You have to find a passion when you retire," says Schultz, who works three days a week at the school and finds it "very rewarding." Lindsay Moore, program spokesperson for Experience Corps, says prospective volunteers must formally apply, submit to a personal interview, and pass a background check. In addition, they must attend an orientation program and get at least 25 hours of training each year.