How to Volunteer Like a Pro for Northern Michigan Nonprofits

Top tips on how to pick the right Northern Michigan nonprofit to volunteer for, and how to make the most out of your gift of time.

Featured in MyNorth Inspired Life, Spring 2019 Issue

Volunteers are more than just inexpensive (eh-hem, free) help for organizations. They’re ambassadors. #1 fans. And coworkers with their sights on similar missions. That’s how Brad Kik of Crosshatch Center for Art & Ecology in Bellaire describes them. With their nonprofit mission to make our region stronger and more self-sustainable, they know a thing or two about the importance of volunteering.

Volunteers are essential elements for many organizations’ survival. And perhaps you’re ready to dive on in and help. But what does it take to be the best volunteer you can be? How do you find the right fit for you in an organization—let alone the right organization to be part of? Here are Brad Kik’s (and fellow Crosshatch staffer Daniel Marbury’s) top tips.

If someone has an interest in volunteering, what do you recommend they consider before starting so they can find the perfect role?

“As a potential volunteer, especially a first-timer, first think about the work you want to do. It might be worth writing down some answers on paper to help sort out your vision for how to spend your time—and then save a lot of hassle for you and for the nonprofits you work with, which comes from a bad fit or a misunderstanding around expectations.

“Here are some questions you want to ask yourself: How much time do I want to spend volunteering? Do I want to spread it around or focus it all on one organization or project? Do I want to go all in on one particular project, or give a set number of hours to the organization as a whole? (For example, do I want to put in a single 40 hour week to help build a new bike trail, or do I want to put in a half day every month to maintain a trail?)

“Indoor work or outdoor? How physically strenuous? What skills can you offer? Often we get stuck thinking of volunteers in low-skill tasks like data entry, poster hanging or physical labor, and forget about the many needs we have like marketing or fundraising support, graphic design or a host of skills like construction, landscaping, etc.

“Also, do you want to meet folks and work in groups? Do you want to travel to a site to volunteer or do you want to offer solitary work from your home office?

“It helps to be clear and honest about your hopes and expectations for volunteering. Are you hoping to learn something in particular? Hoping to get some quality time with someone who works for that organization? Hoping to leverage a future employment opportunity? Often folks just want to advance the mission of the organization and have time to offer, but sometimes there’s a further piece that’s worth exploring.

“As a final thought, look for a good fit with the volunteer coordinator as much as with the mission of the organization. Look for someone who will take the time to communicate with you about your role and your future with the organization, and not just slot you into a time and place as an afterthought. Know that really small or young organizations may not have a well-developed program and so might require more initiative on your part, or might frustrate you with their inability to provide the structure you need. Really large organizations (especially local implementations of national nonprofits) will probably have very rigid structures that you might find a good home in but might not be the right fit for you, and they probably won’t have a huge capacity to flex or tailor an experience. Spend the time to get to know your own needs and then make sure an organization is willing to have that conversation with you.” —Brad Kik

Once you’ve started volunteering, how do you become amazing at it?

“Stay engaged. Our different projects and events at Crosshatch require many aspects of working together and many different skill sets to succeed.

“The best gift you give yourself and the organization you are supporting is to offer a consistent willingness to take on a variety of tasks—this is especially true as you are just starting to get involved. Remember that even by taking on a very simple process task as part of a larger project, you will get a fuller sense of all of the parts that work together to make community change possible.

“It’s really inspiring to me as a volunteer coordinator and to our volunteers when someone finds their niche and really excels in a role.” —Daniel Marbury

Can you tell us about the relationships Crosshatch has with volunteers?

“The relationship Crosshatch has with our volunteers is a partnership built on passions! Many of our volunteers come to our organization as participants in our programming for art, agriculture and ecology. After connecting at a learning workshop, networking event, performance or demonstration, people who are inspired to learn and engage to a greater extent often choose to follow up by volunteering for a future event.

“Volunteering with Crosshatch often gives you a ‘backstage pass’ to experience a program or event in a fuller way, such as meeting our performing artists or farm instructors. We are believers that the best way to learn is by rolling your sleeves up and doing something, and Crosshatch volunteers truly engage in the essential parts of making our programs happen.

“By staying engaged and continuing to share their joy and talent with us, some volunteers even become our educators and performers for future events and programs.” —Daniel Marbury

Why reach out to volunteer? Often supporting local causes introduces you to the community you’ve always wanted to know. And when we put our collective effort into something, the ripple effects of good are endless. Here are just a few of the Northern Michigan nonprofits to which you might consider lending your skills and talents.