Tag Archives: flexible volunteering

How To Find Volunteer Opportunities While Traveling in the U.S.

This is part of our (almost) weekly How To Series.

We are now volunteering an average of 15 hours per week while traveling by car throughout the United States and Canada.  We have volunteered for a wide variety of different projects and hopefully sharing how we get connected can help you get more involved.

Jay and Sharon at Materials for the Arts

Our volunteer project in New York with Materials for the Arts

First, a few caveats:

  1. One time volunteering is not a long term solution to any of our country’s challenges.  I encourage everyone to discover what they are passionate about and make a lasting commitment.
  2. If can often require a lot of planning on your part and on the part of the organization for just a few hours of volunteer work.  For me the planning and then sharing the experience afterwards is all part of the experience and makes it worthwhile.
  3. This advice may not be useful to non-U.S. citizens that are traveling in the U.S..  Some organizations have restrictions on how international visitors can volunteer their time.
sharon in big bad wolf costume

Volunteering at Wabi Sabi Thrift Store in Moab

What kind of volunteering can you get involved with on a one time or flexible basis?
  • Environmental clean ups
  • Trail building and maintenance
  • Sorting donations at a thrift store
  • Shelving and boxing food at a food bank
  • Assisting with nonprofit events such as festivals, charity runs, holiday galas, and silent auctions
  • National Days of Service  provide more diverse opportunities
This is not an exhaustive list, just some examples to get you thinking.
North Country Trail sign

Sign for National Trails Day, which we spent in Pennsylvania

What kind of volunteer will you NOT be able to do on a one time or flexible basis?

  • Mentoring
  • Tutoring kids in a school
  • Being an advocate for abused children
  • Working at a safe house for abused women
  • Holding a leadership role of any kind, such as being on a planning committee, a non-profit board, or coaching a team
The list above may seem obvious, but I think it is helpful to be aware of all the different ways you can be involved as a volunteer and recognize that some of these positions require a certain level of commitment and necessitate background checks and proper screening before you can get involved.
sharon and jay at the red balloon picnic

Jay and Sharon at the Red Balloon Picnic volunteer project with Phoenix Philanthropists

Ok, that said, here’s how I find volunteer opportunities while we are on the road.

  1. I start by looking for a volunteer center in the area we are headed.  Most volunteer centers are part of the HandsOn Network and you can look on their map to find one.
  2. Most volunteer center websites list a “project calendar” such as the one HERE on Volunteer Arlington’s website.
  3. I use the calendar to get an idea of which organizations are hosting events or use “date-specific” volunteers.  You can also browse organizations listed on the volunteer center website for more ideas or for a specific cause.  I usually do not sign up through the Volunteer Center website because it requires me to create an online account and since I am only passing through I do not want to deal with the hassle.
  4. Next I contact the organization directly.  I prefer email so that I have a paper trail.  I usually google the organization, review their website, and then find the name and email of the volunteer manager.
  5. I introduce myself and explain our trip and ask if we can either sign up for an established opportunity or if there is a one time or flexible opportunity that we can help with.  It is important to be specific and clear from the beginning that you are traveling and will not be able to make a weekly commitment.  It might help to list your skills or relevant experience.
If I do not find a volunteer center in the area I usually just google something like, “volunteer Grand Junction November 2011”.  By using the town name and the date I am more likely to find one time opportunities that it is easy to plug into.
Another option for event volunteering is to look on the Visitor Center or Chamber of Commerce website for a listing of local events.  Many local events are actually fundraisers for nonprofits and you can get contact information to ask about helping out.
If you know someone in the area you are traveling to they can also often help connect you to a local organization.  When you are introduced by a local that knows the organization it is much easier to get signed up to volunteer.
Also, if you are traveling but are interested in volunteering in one place for a week, month, or even a year there are a lot more options.
Sharon at Trail building in Prescott

Sharon at a trail building day in Prescott, Arizona

Organizations that have week-long volunteer projects:

Sharon cutting and Jay assisting on a backcountry trip with Bob Marshall Wilderness Foundation

Organizations that have “volunteer vacations” you have to pay for:
If you have other suggestions for how to volunteer in the United States while traveling, please let me know by commenting on this post.

Sock Puppet Anyone? Volunteering with Materials for the Arts

materials for the arts entrance
Sorting dusty housewares is not usually my idea of a stimulating evening out on the town.  However, I was really glad that we signed up to help out at Materials for the Arts (MFTA), because it gave me a unique glimpse into an unusual organization.  This is the most colorful and crafty warehouse I have ever seen.  You snake through corridors lined with murals until you get to the entrance pictured above.  Inside the large warehouse are aisle after aisle of arts, crafts, and miscellaneous supplies waiting to be picked by a needy local arts group.

Socrates Sculpture Garden

Socrates Sculpture Garden in Astoria

As a reuse organization, MFTA is hoping to keep things out of the landfills and extend the supply chain for these goods to include a second life as art.  Earlier that week, we actually witnessed the fruits of MFTA labor without realizing it.  Community gathering points such as the Socrates Sculpture Garden  are where these supplies end up.  Who knows, the housewares we sorted could serve as props in the next Amas Musical Theater project.  I am a big fan of thrift shops and recycling, but making supplies available for reuse in art projects gets to a whole new level.  Artists are so inventive that they could find a use for just about anything!  I considered that as I put chipped pottery on the shelves, remembering the local jeweler in British Columbia who was featuring broken pottery necklaces.

Jay and Sharon at Materials for the Arts

A sense of accomplishment at organizing the housewares aisle

As Jim, the Volunteer Coordinator at MFTA put it on their blog,

Last night something special happened in the MFTA warehouse after we closed for the day. Bins half-full were emptied only to be refilled anew; shelves were cleared and restocked with household and craft items; fabric was gathered up to be folded and displayed on shelves; and after so much and more, the floors were swept of any remaining debris.

When the staff arrived in the morning, they found the front of the warehouse better organized and with even more room for the new donations that have been pouring in over the last few weeks. How is it that such a dramatic change can take place within 2 hours of volunteerism every month? In short: New York Cares.

I am so glad we could join the New York Cares crew to be some of the magical elves that keep Materials for the Arts going.

Jay sorting housewares at the MFTA warehouse

Volunteering in the Community Garden – AKA, Ruining Our Shoes

These 6 hours of volunteering were sponsored by Tiffany Kudravetz and Terri Defazio.  Thank you for the support!

One of the things I didn’t think about until my shoes were covered in about 5 pounds of black prairie soil is that on this trip we only have the stuff in the car.  I have only one pair of walking shoes and on Saturday they got filthy.  It was a memorable way to learn that Plano Texas is part of a unique strip of soil that is incredibly rich and comes in either of two forms: sticky or solid.

Shoes covered in Black Prairie Soil

Jay's Shoes Covered in Black Prairie Soil

On Saturday morning we woke up early to backtrack from McKinney to Plano Texas.  My friend Robin had given us the heads up on a community garden work day there.  Arriving a few minutes late (we’ve been getting lost frequently on this trip), the coordinator, Erin, had already started her intro.  We joined a small crowd made up of teenagers from Future Farmers of America and women who are garden regulars.  This Saturday turned out to be their once a month volunteer work day, so we jumped right in with picking up litter and digging rocks out of the soil.

Plano Community Garden

The garden area we were working in

When I think gardening, I think planting, weeding, harvesting, watering….  We did not do any of those things.  As you can see above, the garden isn’t much of a garden yet.  It turns out that there used to be an extensive garden here, but it had to be transplanted in order to make way for a new LEED Platinum Certified Environmental Education Center, built on the grounds.  The building has just been completed, so now it’s time to get the garden back in.  That means a lot of grunt work, tearing out any plants that aren’t part of the plan and picking all the rocks and junk out of the soil.

Jay dragging tree branches to the street

Jay dragging tree branches to the street

It felt good to get a little dirty and join in the community effort.  Community gardens are particularly noteworthy for being a place of common ground where diverse peoples can gather and work together to create a space that is beautiful, productive, and safe.  When we are in Phoenix at the end of February, we plan to revisit the Garden of Tomorrow, that I volunteered at in November.

Sharon carrying tree trimmings to the street

Sharon carrying tree trimmings to the street

Volunteering with Community Volunteer Network at Help the Homeless Holiday Gala

Last Thursday night, Jay and I volunteered together for the first time in a long time.  We signed up through Community Volunteer Network to volunteer for the 5th Annual Help the Homeless Holiday Gala hosted by Arlington’s Street People’s Assistance Network (A-SPAN).


Help the Homeless Holiday Gala

Photo by Joshua Stockstill, click on the photo to read an article from Patch and see more photos from the event

NOTE: More Great PHOTOS from Clifford on Flickr.


I had come to learn about A-SPAN’s work through their Director of Development, Jan Sacharko, who is very active on social media and has really amplified the voice of A-SPAN in the short time he has worked there.  Although Arlington is well known for its high median incomes and low unemployment rate (around 4% even during this Great Recession), affordable housing and homelessness are still issues that face many Arlingtonians.  Many families are one pink slip or health crisis away from losing everything they have.  A strong safety net is vital so that children’s lives are not uprooted and so that men do not freeze to death on the streets in our community.  These are real consequences  of a broken support structure that I became aware of in the last community we lived in.  Arlington manages to keep the safety net intact with a lot of dedication from individuals like those present at Thursday night’s gala.

Interested in giving to A-SPAN?

Donate Now

Interested in volunteering with A-SPAN?


Our Volunteer Experience

Community Volunteer Network

As a volunteer experience, Thursday night was primarily positive (and would have been overwhelmingly positive if we had been able to arrive sooner and enjoy the event more).  CVN offers a great way for young people like Jay and I to volunteer on a flexible schedule with people that we know.  They have an ongoing calendar of volunteer events as well as happy hours where you can meet other volunteers.  Through my position at Volunteer Arlington I have worked closely with CVN for 2.5 years so we knew most of the CVN volunteers working Thursday night.

The event was split into two shifts, which is absolutely crucial for special events.  First, big events take a lot of energy and therefore a 2 or 2.5 hour shift is long enough (especially since all of the volunteers were coming straight from a full day of work).  Also, one of the main attractors to volunteering for a special event is getting to take part in it for free.  The shifts allowed us to participate before or after our volunteering was complete.  This is great for the organization as well, since none of us would have been able to afford the $100 ticket, but now that we know what the event is about we could spread the word next year or maybe attend in the future when we earn more money.

Jay at A-SPAN Gala

Jay working the front entrance at the A-SPAN Holiday Gala

Jay and I were stationed at the front entrance.  We welcomed guests, answered questions, and opened doors.  This role suits me well since I enjoy direct customer service.  Jay said he felt out of his element at a “gala”, but he was excellent at the job and seemed to enjoy himself.


For next year, or for similar gala events I would recommend:

Offer a service club the opportunity to coordinate the coat check in exchange for keeping any tips they make.  Two volunteers handled the coat check and turned away tips all night.  They did not feel comfortable taking any money, but the guests did not mind paying and that would have been a great way to raise more money for the cause or for another community group.

The bulk of the money raised came from auctions (silent and live).  There is a lot of interesting social science behind raising the most money from an auction which is worth researching.  For example, in a live auction, should you have the auction items get steadily more valuable?  How many auction items are ideal for netting the greatest amount of money and good will from your donors?  What is the effect on giving when large donors are publicly recognized in front of their peers at the event?  Are there methods for real time feedback to the participants about who is bidding, how much, and why they give?  In addition to the giving itself, how can the payment process be streamlined so that donors have a positive experience throughout the event?

CVN has actually volunteered at several fundraisers that featured auctions this year.  We have discussed how CVN volunteers could serve as volunteer consultants to the nonprofits based on our first-hand knowledge of auctions and what we have observed to work best.

My first foray into travel + volunteering

My boyfriend Jay and I are preparing to set forth on Service Driven, a road trip with a volunteering twist, in February 2011.  The idea is that we will travel throughout the United States and Canada, volunteering along the way.  With my experience as a volunteer manager and working for a volunteer center, I’m optimistic about my ability to make the volunteering part of that plan happen, but I have decided to get a head start by volunteering when we visit his family in Phoenix Arizona for Thanksgiving.

In order to find a place to volunteer, I went to the website for the volunteer center in Phoenix, HandsOn Greater Phoenix.  I was excited to see that they have a “managed project calendar” that is meant to encourage flexible volunteering.  Volunteers can search by date and see most of the details of a wide variety of volunteer projects.  They have everything from kayaking with Arizona Disabled Sports to 4 Paws Kitty Kare Day.

Since I will only be in town 4 days, I had a limited number of projects to choose from.  Several projects were already full, so I ended up signing up for a project called “Garden of Tomorrow: Community Building Through Gardening“.   This project sounds like a fun time outside and a chance to see “asset based community development” in action.  Not to mention, Jay’s family may have an interest in joining me and they still have room for more volunteers on the project.

The community garden is hosted by the Tigermountain Foundation, which has a lot of dead links and confusing information on its website, so I am interested to see what I can learn about the organization when I volunteer on Saturday.  Next week I will let you know what I find out and share how my volunteer experience went.

Challenges / Barriers for Travelling Volunteers:

  • HandsOn Greater Phoenix asks new volunteers to register, attend orientation, and pay a $25 fee before volunteering for projects on their project calendar.
  • The project asks you to bring your own gloves & a potluck dish for lunch afterwards – since we are staying with family we will have access to these supplies, but some volunteers may not.