As the secular year-end holidays approach, many people are looking to express gratitude and give back through service. Whether you’re thinking of making sandwiches or sorting food donations, there are some things every volunteer coordinator wants you to know.

Several years ago, I had the distinct privilege of working as a volunteer coordinator responsible for over 13,000 volunteers annually. During that time, my eyes were opened to the true challenges of volunteer coordinators everywhere stemming from the delicate balance of trying to meet organizational needs and offering a positive volunteer experience. As volunteers, there are a number of things you can do to make this easier for coordinators and greatly enhance your own experience!

I offer you these pro tips:

1. Do Not Volunteer on Turkey/Santa/MLK Day: I know this is totally counterintuitive, but please hear me out. Many organizations that rely on volunteers need them 365 days a year. Being overwhelmed with interest three days a year is not only not entirely helpful, but also frequently leads to disappointment on the part of volunteers. Consider volunteering the day before or after one of these days. If you feel very strongly about volunteering specifically on a designated day of service, register early and ask the organization or organizer what they need most. This will make you everyone’s favorite volunteer ever. And remember, there are still 362 days on which organizations would love your assistance with carrying out their mission!

2. Read the Fine Print: This is perhaps the most critical tip I have to offer. The organization where I worked served very ill clients. In our reminder emails, we asked volunteers who were sick to stay home and take care of themselves. It was incredibly frustrating when people showed up at our facility sick. They were miserable and had to be given administrative tasks away from the rest of their group in the kitchen. Meanwhile, they were putting our staff and clients at risk. Other fine print can include what to wear, what to bring, where to go and so on. The better prepared you are for what you’ll be doing, the happier you will be volunteering.

3. Arrive on Time: A meaningful experience includes learning about the organization and its work. This usually happens during an orientation before a volunteer slot. Arriving late can mean feeling frantic rather than centered and relaxed. You miss instructions, and the coordinators are unable to get all the volunteers started at the same time, which is highly disruptive. You may also miss out on free coffee or other perks (in case you need an extra incentive).

4. Stay Present: It’s incredibly easy if you’re participating in projects with friends, family and/or co-workers to lose yourself in conversation rather than service. This can lead to accidents, errors and oversights. My favorite example of this is volunteers who were asked to create holiday-neutral cards. They had ten options including “Happy Holidays” and “Season’s Greetings.” The last one said, “Create your own.” Dozens of brightly colored cards were returned to the coordinator with the inside salutation reading, “Create your own.” Keep your focus!

5. Forget the Ego: Too often, we have preconceived notions of what we want to be doing to help rather than what is actually most helpful. You may want to be bagging cookies, but there are hundreds of salads to be packed that day. Go where you are needed, and you will have a much more rewarding experience. If your true desire is to add value, then listen to what’s needed, not your ego.

Happy volunteering!

Top photo courtesy of Creative Commons