Respectful volunteers research reflect and reach out illustration

Illustration by June Anderson

How to be a respectful volunteer

Planning to volunteer? Amazing! Here’s how to make sure you do it right—and courteously

Yes, your heart’s in the right place, but posting selfies or pushing for policy changes in your first week of volunteering might actually be doing more harm than good. Here’s how to be as respectful as possible when you decide it’s time to give back.  

Have a clear understanding of why you want to volunteer. “It’s the first of the three R’s that I suggest to prospective volunteers, says Kelly Harbour, senior community engagement coordinator with Volunteer Toronto. “Reflect. Think about what you want from the experience: Is it to raise money or awareness for a cause that’s important to you? Are you looking for something to round out your resumé? Do you want to network or make new friends?” All of these are great and valid reasons to volunteer, but the answers will help guide you in finding the right fit when it comes to picking an organization to support.  

Be realistic about what you’re able to offer. We’re not just talking skills and abilities here—we’re talking time. Committing to a role and not following through means the organization will be left in the lurch, blazing through their own resources and spending time looking for, and training, someone new if you flake. It’s detrimental for the clients, too, if you’re working directly with them. “If you’re visiting with isolated seniors, or working with kids, maintaining that consistency and building a relationship over time is really important,” Harbour says. If you can’t commit to an ongoing role, look instead to events like street fairs, movie festivals, or fundraisers—all of which require volunteers to run, but come with a much smaller time commitment.

It’s great to get kids involved, as long as you take a respectful, and informed, approach.

Start investigating organizations. “Research” is Harbour’s second R—and an incredibly important piece of the puzzle. “You really want to find an organization that matches up with your values and where you want to contribute your time,” says Harbour. And here comes Harbour’s third R: Reach out. Then, once you’ve applied for a role, be patient. Remember that all organizations have processes in place, which means it may take weeks before you’re actually volunteering. You may be asked to send in a resumé and cover letter. There may even be interviews, reference checks and even a police check if you’ll be working with a vulnerable population (including kids and seniors). And that’s all before training! Don’t get frustrated and take it out on the staff—these checks and balances are there to protect you, as well as the people you plan to help. 

Respect the staff. Yes, it’s great that you want to share your time and skills for a good cause. But it’s key to remember that you will be working in concert with other volunteers and staff members, too. “It’s not you coming in to save the world,” says Harbour. “Instead, think of it as joining a community to try and create a bit of change.” And while you might go into it full of ideas, it’s important to share them appropriately (i.e. don’t go busting in, guns a-blazing on Day One to tell staff how you would do it better).  

Be mindful of oversharingAll organizations will have policies when it comes to protecting their clients’ privacy. Make sure you are well aware of them before you start snapping selfies or sharing your experiences with clients on social media.  

Think about your motives. Harbour has seen a huge up-tick in recent months of families looking for experiences together, generally to teach their kids a quick lesson about gratitude. It’s great to get kids involved, as long as you take a respectful, and informed, approach. Urge your kids to check out their favourite charities online. For example, many organizations have a wishlist of items they need, which you could start collecting as a family. Or organize a clothing or toy drive! Just be sure to check that you’re gathering items that are truly needed, not what you think would be helpful. 

If it doesn’t feel like a good fit, it’s okay to walk away. Respectfully, of course. Which means, don’t bail at 6:45 a.m. for a 7 a.m. event and leave people in the lurch. Always properly give your notice. And just because this opportunity didn’t work out, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try again to make a difference.