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Young black man stares into ocean
Photography by Joshua Kissi


Volunteering means raising your hand to donate time to an organization and cause you care about. This is a critical aspect of advocacy. In fact, many nonprofits are entirely powered and led by volunteers. On a more personal level, research demonstrates that volunteering is also beneficial for people who choose to participate.

There are several ways to volunteer. You can donate your time and skills to making signs, writing letters, designing a campaign, coding a website, joining a local leadership group, making phone calls, knocking on the doors, providing legal services, etc.


Here are a few things you should know before you volunteer:

1. Volunteers aren't paid.

As a volunteer, you can't receive compensation for your work. If you do, you can potentially be categorized as an employee which may have legal implications and tax requirements. You also can't claim benefits on tax returns for your volunteer time.

2. Background checks are normal.

Given most nonprofits are often serving vulnerable populations, organizations may screen volunteers depending on the length of the engagement and nature of their volunteer duties. This isn’t always required but don’t be surprised if it’s a prerequisite in some situations.

3. The marginalized community should always be centered in advocacy on their behalf.

If you are a non-Black volunteer fighting against police brutality your voice should always be secondary or supplementary to the organization's voice or the Black community they are serving. A great volunteer always centers the marginalized community in their advocacy. In practice this could look like: letting organizers and the Black community take the lead on cause-related decision making, amplifying their voices by retweeting their perspectives instead of immediately sharing your own, etc.

4. The organization’s leadership team sets the priorities.

Each organization creates a strategy for what they would like to accomplish. These strategies can utilize different tools like protest, media engagement, donations, petitions, etc. Your role as a volunteer is to support the strategy set by the leadership team. A common mistake some new volunteers make is entering an organization with an expectation of how the goal should be accomplished. Not every problem can be solved with a protest, sometimes the solutions are more nuanced and less visible. Volunteer with an open mind and the willingness to learn from the experts who have been doing the work for years.

5. Impact isn't always immediate.

The needs of an organization can vary depending on a variety of factors. This can include the issue they are addressing, how current events impact their timing, their staffing needs, etc. This means their need for volunteers will ebb and flow. Just because you are ready to volunteer doesn't mean an organization will immediately need your help the day you sign up. Part of being a dedicated advocate means you have the patience to show up at the moment you are needed. If you don't see any immediate needs listed on an organization’s site, be sure to follow their social handles so you understand what their daily priorities are and can receive the alert when they need additional support.

How you show up matters

Organizations don't want lukewarm or undependable volunteers. They'd rather work with a handful of dedicated people than thousands of allies who aren't truly committed to the cause. In some cases they filter for volunteers who demonstrate genuine interest. According to Houston based Black Lives Matter organizer Brandon Mack, “Organizations don't need allies, they need accomplices and comrades.” Here's how he defines this: "An ally can be considered someone who is interested in the short term. When things heat up you can't necessarily count on them to be there. A comrade or accomplice on the other hand is someone who is truly engaged and will show up and use their privilege to protect the Black community when they truly need support."

Time investment

Your time investment can range from low-high depending on what you are volunteering for and the length of your commitment. Remember effective activism is about consistency and sustainability. With that in mind, pick a project or opportunity that aligns with your schedule to ensure you can see it through.

Source: Council of Non-profits