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Ask before you volunteer: Tips to match your skills with a worthy cause

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Many Americans love to volunteer their time to a worthy cause. Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that 26.5 percent of Americans, about 64.5 million people, volunteered at least once last year.

Frequently, charities and organizations operate with small staffs and budgets and would welcome you as a volunteer. By asking organizations the right questions, you'll find a great fit for your interests, time and skills.

Questions to ask yourself

Your goal is to know if a volunteer opportunity is the right one for you. Before committing, think about the following questions:

What are my interests? Maybe you're looking for a volunteer opportunity that dovetails with your education, or perhaps there's a cause near and dear to your heart. Decide where your interests lie to help narrow your options.

What are my skills? Maybe you're good at teaching or gardening. Think about your strengths, then seek out organizations that need your special skills.

What do I want out of this experience? Volunteering makes you feel good, but is there another way you might benefit? For example, helping someone learn to read may also help you down the road if you're considering a career in education. Many volunteer opportunities can help you boost your own skills while giving back to the community.

How will I work volunteering into my schedule? While you're not a paid employee, people will be counting on you to show up and do a good job. Make sure you're not overcommitting yourself by taking on this new opportunity.

Does location matter? Consider whether you prefer the office, classroom or outdoors.

How will I be affected by this experience? Some volunteer opportunities may take you to disaster areas or bring you into contact with people who have experienced some kind of crisis. Ask yourself if you are ready to handle these situations.

Questions to ask the organization

Once you're ready to start talking to specific organizations, use the following questions to help develop a big-picture view of the organization and your role as a volunteer:

• How old is the organization? What is its mission?

• Who will volunteer projects benefit? What are the goals of the projects?

• How do you match volunteers to projects, both in terms of skills and interest?

• Do you need the skills and experience I can bring to the project?

• How is your organization funded?

• What is my volunteer position? What tasks will I be doing?

• Are the tasks within my physical abilities?

• What kind of training and/or orientation will I receive?

• Are there any particular tools or project supplies I should bring with me?

• What are my hours?

• Are there any security or health concerns I should know about?

• What is the timeline for the volunteer project or position?

• How much of the work is performed by volunteers versus the organization's employees?

• While volunteers are a vital part of many charities, there are times work should be performed, or at least supervised, by a paid employee. What kinds of tasks will I be assigned and am I comfortable with what I'll be doing.

• Is there a fee to volunteer? Be wary if an organization asks you to pay them to volunteer.

• Is there an expectation of a financial commitment to the organization? Some nonprofits expect board members (and perhaps other volunteers) to make annual contributions.

• Are volunteers (especially board members) covered by appropriate liability insurance coverage? You certainly don't want to volunteer your time to an organization if there are any uninsured liability risks.

Other considerations

If you would like to get involved with an organization but can't make a long-term commitment, remember that even occasional efforts are appreciated. Donating blood, helping deliver meals or reading to children at the library are all worthwhile activities you could do on an as-needed basis.

Before committing to an organization, do your homework. Learn as much as you can about the organization and its efforts. If it seems like the right place for you, take the first step and contact them.

Remember that not every volunteer program will be the right fit. While some people will seek the challenging environment of working in a disaster zone, others may feel more comfortable delivering flowers to hospital patients. It's important to find the situation that matches your skills and interests.

A CPA can help you create a financial plan to make your volunteer aspirations a reality. Visit www.ineedacpa.org to find a CPA in Pennsylvania by location or area of expertise.

For more information about Pennsylvania Institute of Certified Public Accountants (PICPA), visit www.ineedacpa.org.

Write to the Editorial Department at editorial@cpbj.com

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