Volunteering in Public Service: How to Gain Experience Through Giving Back

From helping to eliminate poverty and improving public health to tackling environmental issues and ensuring social safety, learn how you can contribute to your community through volunteering

Last Updated: 08/14/2020

From firefighters and police officers to teachers and social workers, those who dedicate their lives to public service are usually answering a calling. It’s this calling to make their communities safer, healthier, more educated, and all around better that leads them to pursue careers in public service. If you have this same calling to do social good, a career serving the public may be right for you. But how do you get there? Through volunteering in public service, you not only get to answer your calling sooner, but you get the opportunity to test drive your future career, meet the professionals you may one day call your colleagues, and most of all, start making a difference in the lives of the people around you. Use this guide to learn how to get started, find valuable resources, and see how volunteering can help you gain experience while giving back.

Featured Volunteer Resources from STEPS

Different Ways to Do Good Through Volunteer Work

Whether you’re interested in volunteer firefighting or you want to get practice teaching local students, there are a variety of public service volunteer positions just waiting to be filled by hopeful public servants. Let’s take a closer look at some of the ways you can start helping your community while getting your foot in the door with a future career.

Volunteering in Law Enforcement

Hopeful police officers can look to local departments to start their volunteer work. Volunteers in these scenarios can help with administrative work, data entry, or make use of any specialized skills that they may have. Volunteers with specialized training may be able to volunteer with police departments and provide counseling services, help with composite drawings of suspects, assist with the care and training of K-9 units, and more. Civilian volunteers don’t’ take the place of law enforcement officers, but rather help take care of the day-to-day department duties and allow police officers and related workers to focus on more crucial or time-sensitive tasks. Depending on the location, some volunteers may need to take a citizen’s academy class before they can volunteer in a police department, so make sure to check the specific requirements of your local police department.

Becoming a Volunteer Firefighter

Volunteering as a firefighter is an excellent way to serve your community while gaining valuable experience. Volunteer firefighters are especially useful in rural areas or towns where funding a full-time firefighting staff is not economical. Additionally, many individuals who are interested in pursuing a career as a firefighter first give it a try as a volunteer. It can be a valuable steppingstone for you to get acquainted with the daily duties of a firefighting career and can put you in touch with possible future employers. Volunteer firefighters shouldn’t expect to spend their time behind a desk. In many cases, these volunteers need to engage in life or death situations and assist with traumatic events. The standards for becoming a volunteer firefighter vary among fire departments, so be sure to contact your local fire department and visit our dedicated article on volunteer firefighting for more information.

Volunteering in Public Health

When you volunteer in a public health position, you don’t necessarily need expertise in a healthcare field. Many institutions benefit greatly from having volunteers around to answer phones, assist with day-to-day activities, and more. If you’re interested in public health volunteering, you should check with local hospitals, hospice centers, shelters, and nonprofit organizations for any nearby opportunities and immediate needs. Volunteering in public health also helps prospective medical students bolster their resume and improve their applications before applying to schools. It shows college and university admissions committees that you went the extra mile to gain hands-on experience in a medical care setting before pursuing specialized training.

Volunteering in Education

You give yourself a chance to pass on knowledge to many students in need when you volunteer in an educational setting such as a school or library. Unfortunately, today not every student gets the attention they need to do their best in school. Volunteering as a teacher’s aide, mentor, or tutor helps students who need a little extra assistance and often helps to lighten a teachers’ load. Additionally, volunteering in education also provides you with great opportunities to see if you would like to pursue a career as a teacher yourself. There are many programs for English speakers to teach abroad, as well. These opportunities can help you learn about different cultures and parts of the world while providing an extremely valuable service, often for underserved populations.

Volunteering for the Environment

Students looking to volunteer in positions that benefit the environment should check for opportunities at nonprofit organizations, public interest research groups, charities, horticultural societies, and local, state, and national parks. If you have an interest in a particular environmental issue, chances are there are volunteer opportunities to get involved with. Some useful categories to consider when trying to decide where to look include clean water initiatives, tree planting projects, ocean and marine life centers, wildlife departments, and climate change research. For prospective students considering a green or environmentally focused career, check out the vast  career opportunities you can pursue with a forestry degree.

Volunteering in Social Work

Some of the more diverse volunteer opportunities exist for those interested in social work. Whether you have an interest in working with families, children, veterans, or individuals with disabilities, you can give back to your community and see what it’s like to work in a social work career. There are even opportunities to volunteer in highly specialized areas of social work, including mental health and substance abuse issues, as well as social work opportunities abroad. Many established organizations have multiple types of programs in place to serve their targeted demographic. An organization that serves children, for example, may have established programs that take place both inside and outside of schools, in educational institutions or community-based settings. These programs can also focus on particular subsets of their target audience, such as children in military families or young people with incarcerated parents.

Becoming an Emergency Management Volunteer

Do you see yourself pursuing a fast-paced, emergency-focused career? Maybe you are just interested in helping your community, emergency responders, or disaster action teams that are critical during crises. In any case, taking advantage of a volunteer opportunity in emergency management is an admirable way to support these necessary services, as 90% of the disaster workforce is made up of volunteers. Depending on the organization, you may need a community emergency response team (CERT) certification to be eligible to volunteer. The CERT program offers you introductory training in disaster response, fire safety, search and rescue, and medical triage. Volunteering in emergency management also can give you a taste of what it’s like to work in these positions as a full-time career.

How Does Volunteering Benefit You?

Volunteering in public service doesn’t only benefit the community. In fact, there is much evidence to support the argument that volunteers themselves experience a variety of benefits for their work. Aside from boosting your resume and giving you a significant opportunity to give back to your community, volunteering has some significant yet often overlooked positive effects on the mind and body. Below are a few of the ways you’ll benefit from giving back.

Volunteering connects you with others

Your work as a volunteer can help connect you to like-minded individuals who are interested in achieving the same goals or share similar pursuits. The people you meet can serve as social contacts as well as professional contacts you can utilize when you’re looking to begin your career. It can be helpful to treat volunteering experiences as both a social and professional networking endeavor.

Volunteering is good for your mind and body

It may come as a surprise that volunteering can also be beneficial to your health. A recent study completed at Harvard University shows that volunteers feel more connected to their communities, are better able to handle stress and anxiety, and feel increased self-confidence and sense of purpose. They are also more likely to stay physically healthy than people who don’t volunteer.

Volunteering can help advance your career

Volunteer opportunities help you get real, hands-on experience and an idea of what it’s like to work in these areas. Additionally, you will get to meet professionals who are experts in these areas and can provide insight into what it’s like to work in the field you’re interested in pursuing. These expert contacts can serve as important resources if you decide to apply for a job in that area later on.

Volunteering brings fun and fulfillment to your life

Volunteers get the chance to explore their interests while giving back to the community and, much of the time, have fun while doing so. These experiences can be energizing and provide much-needed escapes from your daily routine and stressful commitments. Some enjoy volunteering because it offers them a chance to get outdoors and apply creative energy that may not be used as regularly as they would like.

Volunteering allows you to test drive a career

As discussed earlier, volunteer opportunities give you the chance to see what it’s like to work in the area you’re interested in. More importantly, you may be in a position where you can watch professionals in that area work and carry out essential takes. It gives you the chance to ask them questions, try some of the work yourself, and really get a feel for what it’s all about.

Questions to Ask Yourself

With all of these volunteer options, deciding where you fit can be a little overwhelming. In order to get started on the right path,  begin by asking yourself these questions to hone in on what will be a good fit for you.

Q: Would you like to work with adults, children, animals, or remotely from home?

With so many options, it can be helpful to decide upfront whether you wish to work with people in-person or remotely, or even volunteer to help animals. Volunteer opportunities helping adults and children tend to vary quite a bit, so that’s an important distinction to make when you’re starting out.

Q: Do you prefer to work alone or as part of a team?

There are both collaborative and team volunteer opportunities as well as tasks you can complete on your own. If you are trying to get a feel of what your future career will be like and it’s a job that involves working as a team, it’s smart to pursue a volunteer opportunity that gives you the chance to work with others.

Q: Are you better behind the scenes or do you prefer to take a more visible role?

Some volunteers enjoy being leaders and actively involved on the front lines. Others prefer to contribute behind the scenes. No matter where you fall, there are positions available for you to volunteer.

Q: How much time are you willing to commit?

Your daily schedule will dictate how much time you can commit to volunteering activities.  You don’t have to overwhelm yourself in order for the experience to be beneficial or meaningful, so only dedicate as much time as is comfortable for your life obligations.

Q: What skills can you bring to a volunteer position?

All of us come from different backgrounds and life experiences. What particular skills do you bring to the table and how do you think you can apply them to a volunteer position?

Q: What causes are important to you?

Bear in mind that one of the most important aspects of choosing a volunteer position is that the cause should matter to you. This will help keep you focused, interested, and working toward a common goal.

Q: Are you interested in volunteering abroad?

Many volunteers choose to leave the United States and find positions abroad.  If this might be of interest to you, it’s worth your time looking into these positions, especially if you have teaching experience and/or mastery of a second language.

5 Tips to Make the Most Out of Your Volunteer Experience

There are a few things to try to keep in mind as you enter into the world of volunteering. Here are 5 tips to help you get the most out of your experience as a public service volunteer.

1 Be flexible and open to new ideas

Approach volunteering experiences by casting a wide net. Try not to limit yourself to one particular type of job or only one organization. You may find that one volunteer position ends up being quite a bit different in-person than how it is described on paper. It’s always best to approach these opportunities with an open mind.

2 Identify your goals

Knowing what your goals are as a volunteer can help you narrow down your options and lead you to a positions that are a good fit for you. For example, if you have an interest in going to college to pursue a career as an ER nurse, it may be helpful to volunteer in emergency management or in a hospital setting to try it out.

3 Be honest about your skills and experience

We need to enter into these volunteering experiences with honest knowledge of our strengths and what our previous work or life experience has prepared us to handle. If you question whether or not you could handle a fast-paced or high-stress environment, for example, it may be best to look for positions in a more comfortable arrangement for you.

4 Keep track of everything you learn

If you look hard enough, you’ll realize that you’ve learned something new during every volunteer experience. It can be beneficial in both the short- and long-term to keep track of all of the things you’ve learned. Not only will this list help jog your memory in the future, it will be an indicator of how you have benefitted from the volunteer work over time.

5 Make sure your expectations are realistic

When you enter into a volunteering opportunity, it’s important that you have realistic expectations. You may be asked to do some undesirable tasks or work on something that is less than ideal. It’s important, however, to know what is expected of you and trust that your contributions are ultimately important in achieving the goals you’ve set for yourself.

Searching for Public Service Volunteer Opportunities

Here are some official websites for government-funded volunteer organizations. These sites provide you with thorough information on what the organizations do, what volunteer opportunities are available, and how to apply.

Volunteer Resources

Here are some additional resources that highlight volunteer opportunities through small organizations, nonprofits, and more.