Hands delivering a box full of red and pink hearts, indicating the benefits of volunteering

Fifteen years ago, I became an accidental volunteer. The experience changed my life in ways that were both practical (like gaining real-world job skills) and profound.

Volunteering set me on a path that required me to put aside the drama of my own daily grind and to become more selfless. And here’s the crazy part: becoming more selfless ultimately led me to meaningful discoveries about myself – who I am, what matters to me, and how I want to move through the world. Those realizations were a big part of what got me through the darkest days of 2020. I hope that my story will inspire you (and your team) to start volunteering – and below, I’ll talk about some ways to help jumpstart the process.

But now, let’s rewind to 2005, where I’ll share the tale of how I ended up having 500 packs of Easy Mac stacked in my guest bathroom.

“I guess I’m running a food drive now …”

“Trish, when you’re grocery shopping over the next few weeks, could you pick up a few extra things for my students? I want to give out some food before holiday break. A lot of the kids won’t have anything to eat when the school cafeteria is closed.”

When I got that phone call from my sister 15 years ago, I wasn’t thinking about volunteer opportunities ­– I was thinking about survival. Like many working parents with small kids, I was suffering from overwhelm. How many chores do I have to do before I can crash for the night? Does laundry really need to be folded if we’re just going to wear everything again?

But hearing a first-hand account of kids going hungry just 20 minutes away from me? That was a jolt. I didn’t know it then, but that conversation would turn out to be a major life moment for me.

I couldn’t sleep that night. The next day I told a friend what my sister had said. “That’s unacceptable,” she replied. “I’m going to buy some things, too.” But she did more than that. She put up a notice at the yoga studio where she took classes. Next thing she knew, bags and boxes of food started arriving on her front porch. A few days later, she arrived at my house with a trunk full of donated food.

Inspired by my friend, I decided to go big the next year. I sent an email to my entire address book explaining the situation. Next thing I knew, friends and strangers were showing up at my house with carloads of food. Seeing the crates of granola bars, ramen noodles, and Chef Boyardee piled around the Christmas tree made me feel like I was living in a holiday miracle.

By 2007, our past donors were primed and ready. Many had begun running their own mini-food drives at work or with family members. As the deliveries poured in, I had to stack food in every available space in my house, including one rarely used bathroom. That year, we brought in enough food to send 300 kids home with groceries for the holidays.

Over the next few years, we did it again and again. It was a lot of work. It was extra pressure over the holidays. But none of that mattered, because I was on a giver’s high. I began forming a new belief: plenty of people are eager to help others, they just don’t know how. Given the right outlet, human compassion will flow freely.

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Eventually, the food drive outgrew me and my ability to run it out of my home. I ended up partnering with a local business owner who had storage space and resources to streamline the operation. She eventually transitioned the food drive into a non-profit organization, which she then successfully ran for several more years.

Benefits beyond the obvious, both personally and professionally

Volunteering helped me to gain a perspective of gratitude about my own life. As Oprah has been telling everyone for years, gratitude has proven positive impacts on your physical and mental health. But volunteering has benefits that go far beyond getting a case of the warm-and-fuzzies – and those benefits translate to teams as well.

Volunteering can create a sense of well-being equivalent to getting a raise of $1,100-$1,900 per month or moving to a better neighborhood. Researchers in England attempted to quantify the impacts of volunteering on health and well-being as translated to a monetary value. The numbers above reflect the experience of people who made a regular commitment to volunteering.

From my own perspective, I found these numbers impressive but not surprising. During my food drive years, I went through significant personal upheaval, including a divorce and substantial financial hardship. Yet, despite my intense personal challenges, I felt grateful – even content. I knew that I was doing all that I could to help my fellow humans. It made my own worries seem more manageable.

Volunteering builds job skills. A study from the University of Vermont showed measurable gains in problem solving, communication, teamwork, and other desirable job skills among people who volunteered.

Personally, I ended up being an accidental outreach coordinator and fundraiser, writing thousands of words each holiday season to appeal for donations and then providing updates to donors as the weeks progressed. As Facebook became more popular, I transitioned my communications there and started adding lots of photos to generate excitement.  

I also had to sort out some tricky supply chain management issues. Getting 100 loaves of bread from the grocery shelf to children’s’ homes involved a lot of coordination. We needed vehicles and drivers, plans for packaging the food (don’t squish the bread!) and people to do it, as well as a system for distributing the food so kids could safely carry it home by foot or via public transportation. We also needed to manage all of this in light of the fact that some kids who desperately needed food did not want to be seen as “needy.” Discretion had to be a priority.   

Volunteering can help you build and maintain relationships. This one may seem obvious, but for me, it’s profoundly true – and something that helped me through the disruption of the last few years.

One of my most generous and passionate donors was a friend who has completely opposite political views than mine. We have agreed on little over the past five years. But remembering her showing up on my doorstep with tears in her eyes and a box of warm winter clothing in her arms, saying “These were on sale so I bought all they had!” helps me remember who she is at her core. Even when we disagree vehemently (and we do), we cannot forget the good we have seen in each other.

Think of the ramifications this kind of connection can have for teams. Building closer relationships as human beings can help smooth rough edges in difficult interactions at work. If you have the sense that a teammate is a kind person at heart, you’ll probably be more motivated to search for common ground in difficult interactions. And and there’s research to back this up.

Teams that volunteer together are happier and more productive. Two studies published in the Academy of Management Journal revealed the tangible benefits of volunteering as a team. Some highlights:

  • Team members reported finding more meaning in their jobs, and especially so if they reported their jobs as having less meaning, in general.
  • Teams were more productive, with people becoming more absorbed in their jobs, rather than distracted by volunteering duties.
  • Colleagues demonstrated increased empathy in interpersonal communications.
  • Companies reported lower turnover among people who volunteered through their jobs.
  • Workers reported a feeling of increased loyalty to their employer, based on the company’s demonstrated commitment to doing good.  

Volunteering lets you get involved with your community. In the beginning on my volunteering journey, I learned that there were people in desperate need right down the road. But as time went on, I became even more invested in the community. Eventually, I started a creative writing group for girls at the school, where, through their writing, I got an incredible education into the joys and challenges they faced every day.  

This is how to safeguard your mental health when you’re (still) working from home

If you’ve moved somewhere for a job, volunteering is an excellent way to help raise up your new community in ways that go beyond gentrification.

How to start volunteering as a team (even if you’re remote)

Want to do some good as a team? If your company has a volunteering program like ours does, that’s an excellent way to donate your time and talent without over-taxing your schedule. If your company doesn’t have a formal program, considering chatting with your HR folks about starting one.

But your team probably doesn’t need an official sanction from the higher-ups to get started.

First, discuss your priorities in picking a cause. Do you want to support a charity near your company’s headquarters? Is there a program that connects with your business priorities? Is there a specific need that you’d like to address that your group feels strongly about? Some food for thought:

  • Tech companies may want to get involved with organizations like Girls Who Code, which seeks to close the gender gap in technology by building coding skills among female students.
  • SCORE is an organization that provides business mentors for small businesses in all sectors in hundreds of communities. Right now, the focus is on helping businesses build resiliency during COVID-19.
  • Room to Read is a global literacy program that supports schools and education programs around the world. Atlassian has an ongoing and robust partnership with this organization – employees are encouraged to set up regular donations which the company then matches.

Discuss your time commitment as a group. Decide how many hours you can spend every month, both individually and as a team, in relation to your current workload. Set goals and assign responsibilities, just as you would with other projects.

If you’re working remotely, an online fundraiser may be an effective starting point. Organizations like Make-A-Wish and St. Jude have easy-to-use fundraising dashboards with social sharing baked in. You can also set up your own fundraising campaign for the charity of your choice through GoFundMe or GiveButter.

How to start volunteering on your own

My foray into volunteering was accidental and ended up being a massive time commitment. But remember, there are plenty of ways to volunteer as an individual in a much more manageable way. Here’s how to get started:

1. Pick a lane

There’s satisfaction in going deep in one specific area so you can see progress over time. Choose a cause that you’re intensely passionate about so it will be easier to keep your commitment. Remember that you don’t have to save the world. While you’re busy supporting a women’s shelter, be assured that someone else is helping out at the ASPCA or raising money for cancer.

Use sites like VolunteerMatch and Idealist to find causes that interest you. You can also check out local volunteer pages on social media – many towns have Facebook pages where you can ask about local volunteer opportunities. You should also talk to friends and family – you may uncover new opportunities or even find that they want to volunteer with you.

2. Think about what skills you’d like to use

Maybe you want to use your professional skills to advance a cause, or maybe you just want to do something entirely different from your day job. Whether you want to write fundraising appeals or provide physical support at a food bank, select an option that’s not going to pile on to stressors you may already have.

3. Be realistic about your time

A regular commitment will provide the most benefit to the organization you support and to you. Even if you only have an hour or two to spare, that time can make a difference. Can you mentor a child via Facetime or Zoom twice a month? Can you spend the first Saturday of every month stocking shelves at a food pantry?

If you’re really pressed for time, committing to a regular donation schedule is a very worthy way to go. Take the opportunity to follow your selected organization closely so you can educate yourself about the work they’re doing in the community. When your schedule opens up a bit, you may be poised to get involved in other ways, too.

It’s also important to remember that you can take breaks. After my food drive experience, I scaled back my volunteering commitments for several years so I could focus on some personal things. I decided to give myself the permission to let others take the lead for a while, knowing that I would jump back in when my life was a little more settled. (Which reminds me – it’s about that time now.)

You can change your life – and your team – starting today

This past year has been enough to make anyone cynical about their fellow human beings. The acts of kindness and empathy I witnessed while volunteering helped me keep my faith that good exists in the world, and that there are plenty of people who are eager to help others if given the chance.

Go forth and help others. And in so doing, you’ll be helping yourself, too. Promise.

I discovered the benefits of volunteering and restored my faith in humanity