The Essential Guide to Volunteering

Volunteering has the potential to give anyone a rewarding experience that would contribute to their personal growth. The act of volunteering for an organization is a donation of your time rather than a monetary donation. Just as you wouldn’t want your money to be misused, you wouldn’t want your time to be misused either. 

With the 2020 presidential election upon us, you may find yourself wanting to volunteer for your favorite candidate’s campaign. This means it is important to advocate for yourself and recognize situations that could lead to exploitation. We would like to think that any organization or campaign would have the best interest of their volunteers as a top priority, and for the most part that is the case, but unfortunately that cannot be said for all volunteer opportunities. Unlike being an intern or employee where there are specific measures in place to prevent the exploitation of workers, in general, volunteer work is less regulated.

Having been a volunteer for many organizations myself, both large and small and for a variety of causes, I have learned a lot in the past couple years. Some of my experiences required an application and interview process, while others were less formalized, such as helping out at local festivals. I’ve volunteered for at least seven different organizations since my junior year of high school, and now almost four years later have only two less than stellar experiences to speak of. 

Jack Gartland is a senior at Bay Shore High School and has volunteered for numerous organizations, including many local political campaigns. This is where he had some of his best and worst volunteer experiences. Before he volunteers for a candidate, he always makes sure that their policies align with his own views and morals. He says, “I’m actually really passionate about helping marginalized communities and groups receive the resources and recognition they deserve.” More specifically, Jack enjoys learning about the ways in which queer, female, black,  people of color, disabled, and others have contributed to our society and the ways in which our society can give back to those who have been marginalized. 

As for his process in choosing which candidates to support, he says,“In the past, I’ve spoken to the candidates themselves and would decide whether or not their policies and perspectives were something I wanted to volunteer my time supporting. One thing I do before I commit to volunteering, is observe how the organization/candidate treats their volunteers and staff.”

He speaks of Christine Pellegrino’s re-election campaign as his first “real, committed, long-term volunteer experience” he ever had. “I learned so much about politics, power dynamics in grassroots campaigns, and about the (often corrupt) inner workings of local government. Volunteering here was also always interesting; I would walk around places I didn’t even know existed with my friends, and knock on strangers’ doors for hours and hours. I think what made it so special was my personal connection to Christine; I spoke and worked with her often, and I felt like she was a normal, passionate person, and not a superficial politician just looking for their next paycheck.” 

While his interactions with Christine Pellegrino and her policies motivated him to continue volunteering, some of his experiences with campaign staff members have left him feeling taken advantage of and underappreciated. “While it was a generally good experience, I never felt like I was being totally respected like some others in the campaign were. Because I’m still in high school, I was never asked for my opinion on certain things, nor was I ever really thanked for my contributions. I did almost 200 hours walking all over the island [Long Island], knocking on doors, and mapping affiliations in parts of town that were old and outdated. I trained new volunteers and was one of the top phonebankers for the campaign. However, never once was I acknowledged for my work aside from a thank you here and there.”

Jack went on to ask multiple times for a letter of recommendation for all of his service to the campaign. It took a year for the letter to be written and even then Jack was asked to write his own letter. In the end, Jack says, “While the experience was fun and interesting, I felt like I was being exploited for my free labor.” 



Sam, a recent Stony Brook graduate, has volunteered for about six organizations with some of the issues she’s most passionate about being gender equality, economic empowerment, mental health awareness, and food security. One of her favorite volunteer opportunities is one that she is currently completing for AmeriCorp Vista. There she is doing work that is meaningful to her by looking for ways to create economic opportunities for residents in Sedona, Arizona. 

However, Sam has also had some negative experiences. She explains, “My worst volunteer experience was at an organization that has college chapters around the U.S., but will remain nameless. Once they found out that I was the type to volunteer, they wanted me to do absolutely everything. Anytime there was anything that needed to be done they would ask me to do it, and even worse they were not even appreciative of my efforts. I would often receive rude and passive aggressive comments from paid staff.”

Sam knew she had to leave her volunteering position after she was asked to attend a political lobbying conference and speak as a student representative as a way for the organization to spread its political opinions. That was the last straw for her. She looks back on the opportunity citing the main red flags as being the treatment she received from staff, often being rude and unappreciative of her work. 

Jack spoke of similar red flags which he has encountered while volunteering. “The major warning signs that I experienced, looking back, were walking for hours campaigning in the hot sun or spending entire days in the office phone banking, and they never being asked if I needed food, water, or transportation. I also was never thanked very often for my work, unless I was speaking to the politician I worked with.” Jack was also frustrated by the lack of feedback he received from campaign staff members, feedback which he felt was important for the personal growth aspect of volunteering. 

Jack and Sam both gathered valuable tools to bring to their next volunteer experiences, where they feel they are now better equipped to recognize a bad situation and remove themselves from it. No one is denying the important role volunteers play in countless organizations that make a positive difference, however, we must all be advocates for ourselves.

Here are some important questions to ask yourself the next time you volunteer:

  • Is this a cause that I really care about? 

  • Do I have the time to commit to a volunteering position? 

  • Is this a reputable organization? 

  • Is this organization both ethical and efficient in their use of time and money? 

  • Does this organization appear well organized? 

  • Are your duties clearly outlined by organization members? 

  • Do you feel that your work is being appreciated?

  • Do organization members introduce themselves and make me feel welcome? 

Sam leaves volunteers with this: “My advice to someone who is serious about volunteering is to look into opportunities that are more than just a couple hours a month. With volunteering, the more time you put in the more you get out, which is why opportunities like AmeriCorps and Peace Corps are so rewarding.”

Jack imparts this bit of advice to volunteers: “If you’re looking to volunteer, think about what you’d like to do, not what you think would help you in the future in getting college admission or a resume booster. Often times the best volunteer experiences are the ones that are least expected, and reap the most personal growth. Also, ensure that from the get-go, your ‘employers’ have your best interests at heart. Even just thank-you’s and real conversation will let you know you’re in the right place.”

Remember that advocating for yourself in this way is a form of self care. Cutting a volunteer experience short does not make you a bad person, but rather someone who knows their worth and will not settle for less.