Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Volunteering : For the Win!

I had forgotten the many benefits of volunteering, but recently remembered it was one of the lessons I'd taught myself way back during high school. I remember spontaneously deciding to volunteer to help setup the photography darkroom before class: I wanted to learn about how to mix the chemicals and learn more of the 'behind the scenes' technical details about the equipment. Not only did I gain the sense of satisfaction from reliably setting up the darkroom so we could all produce our creations, but I ended up establishing a much stronger relationship with the photo teachers on the campus. In that position, you can't help but learn random tips and tricks along the way: hearing about photo contests, learning about new equipment or techniques you would have never thought to even ask about, and other opportunities here and there.

One of the big bonuses happened after I graduated: my college charged a prohibitive fee for their darkroom usage (I was going to put all photography on hiatus), but due to the connections I had established with the high school photo teachers, I was able to continue using my old high school darkroom and other photo equipment all throughout my undergraduate years. :) I don't think there would have been any way I could have negotiated to use the high school darkroom during my college days if I hadn't volunteered there during my time as a student. Valuable life lesson!

Producer Not Consumer
Since I'm in the process of starting a new career, I've cut back on membership to places around town that I love visiting, but can't justify the expense right now. I recently realized that volunteering at these places is a wonderful way to continue my involvement 'for free' and even significantly enhance the experience by meeting the people behind the scenes and learning so much more than I would as a paying customer. We're talking botanical gardens, wildlife reserves, nature parks, museums, galleries ... Whatever your interest, I highly recommend investigating volunteer opportunities. When there's so much conditioning nowadays to be a consumer, it's very refreshing to realize when you are volunteering, you have become a producer of what you love.

Foot In The Door 
When trying to break into a difficult industry (publishing, photography, ...), volunteering drastically reduces your cost to an organization. Maybe some training overhead, but otherwise you position yourself as a no-risk trial run for what could turn into a career down the road. It's a gesture of goodwill, and people are generally so appreciative for the help of someone with initiative and drive to learn. It's a nice change of pace from a 'job' environment. And if it's not something you really are enjoying after all, you are the one in the driver's seat who can try something else without drama. Hopefully though, if you are a good fit for that environment and prove yourself reliable and fun to work with, you will probably be on their A-list and the first to know about any job opportunities or other 'insider' insights. If nothing else, you are in a great position to make some strong networking contacts.

Networking and Opportunity
Many times, it's the people you meet and unexpected opportunities you hear about that make the largest long term impact on your life, rather than a short term paycheck. That's where volunteering comes in. With your wider range of contacts, you hear about random opportunities, tips, and other insights that might not have otherwise crossed your path. Many times in life it's who you know that leads to 'lucky' breakthroughs, and volunteering at something you love to do can help shine a light on opportunities there you didn't know were available to you.

Finding Volunteer Opportunities
I've either contacted individual places directly to find volunteer opportunities (many have websites with volunteer listings), and I also found new places to volunteer that I hadn't known existed by doing a Google search for 'volunteer' and city name. I found a few websites that list pre-scheduled local volunteer events posted by various organizations. It's been a fun way to explore the city!

One More Example
Cherry Blossom Fantasy
Copyright Laura A Knauth, All rights reserved
I just got back from a volunteer session in a local nature park where we helped propagate local plants. I didn't know what to expect, but it was such an interesting learning experience. Turns out, you can cut new shoots from many different trees and shrubs in springtime (we looked for 'pencil width' shoots just as they were just budding), clip any stray stems, put the stick in at least 5 inches of soil (with about a foot out of the soil), and with regular watering, voila! new plant. Amazing :)  The measurements would change depending on the type of plant, but that's an example. (We were focusing on large shrubs.) Gardening costs can really add up, so I unexpectedly learned how to save $$ in my own garden for the future! Hey, if you have a neighbor with a gorgeous looking plant, you could just ask to take a small clipping to grow one of your own. State forests in my area appear to allow taking clippings for small personal quantities. For national forests, you can apply for a free use Forest Products Permit. (I'd put a general link if there was one, but it looks like each forest has it's own permit, so you'd have to find the one for your area.)

So, above and beyond to thinking of volunteering as giving back to the community (which can be wonderful all by itself), I've found volunteering at something that fulfills your hearts desire simultaneously offers so many of these other unexpected benefits ... not to mention the high likelihood of making new friends with shared interests.

Hope these tips help send more opportunities your way.

Blog Post by Laura A Knauth

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