Can you be a professional volunteer?

Some people volunteer a few weekends out of a year, and others make a career out of it.
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Widespread volunteerism is an indicator of a healthy culture. A society in which people are willing to spend a few extra hours per week working to help their community for free means that its citizens have both leisure and goodwill to spare. But what if you want to take it to the next level? What if you want to turn a few hours of volunteer work every week into an occupation? And if that work becomes a full-time job, how do you maintain the volunteer spirit? Is it possible to become a professional volunteer?

That depends on how you define it. For instance, things get a little muddy once you start to consider people like teachers and firefighters, who are dedicating their lives to community service. Are they professional volunteers or just professionals? On the other hand, what if you're the princess of Monaco but also spend 60 hours a week reading aloud to the blind? What if you've chaired the Red Cross board of directors on Sunday afternoons for 35 years? Or you work as a fry cook but underreport your hours?


There's no formal definition for professional volunteerism, so picking out what it means can be a bit difficult. The word "professional" suggests that whatever you're doing, you're good at it and getting paid. But the term "volunteerism" almost always means that you're working for free. For the sake of convenience, we're going to try to walk the thin line and consider as a professional volunteer someone who devotes most of his or her life -- as much time as is allotted for any paid labor -- to the service of others for little or no compensation. A professional volunteer is willing to give up material comforts and financial stability in order to make the world a better place, even leaving friends and family to pick up and move to unfamiliar areas.

It's a noble course to take, but there are a few practical considerations. After all, you're going to have to pay for food and rent somehow. On the next page, we'll take a look at some of the logistics of being a professional volunteer.


What It Takes to Be a Professional Volunteer

As the venerable Tom Brokaw once said, "It's easy to make a buck. It's a lot tougher to make a difference" [source: Blaydes]. Unfortunately for the professional volunteer, both can be tough. Making enough money to get by is a serious enough concern for people even if they have a regular job, and it gets exponentially more difficult if unpaid volunteer work occupies most of your time. When you take into account things like groceries, rent, credit card bills, student loans and health insurance, you're either going to have to get a second job or end up living on scraps and sleeping under porches.

So what's the solution? The truth is that no matter how good-hearted you are, no nonprofit group on Earth is going to pay you just for handing out blankets or serving soup. However, there are a few organizations that are willing to pay for some of their volunteers' expenses -- with some preconditions. The name of the game here is funding: No volunteer organization has enough of it, which means they have to pick and choose what (and who) they're willing to pay for. Offering even the most modest wages, especially for unskilled labor, often ends up being unfeasible or ridiculous when tasks can be accomplished by a small group working a few hours a week instead of a single person reporting for duty every day.


The professional volunteer has two options. The first is to go out and acquire skills in a particular area that will make him or her uniquely useful to a volunteer organization. For instance, Doctors Without Borders, a group whose mission is to offer medical aid in war-torn or undeveloped areas, will always need surgeons and dentists. Habitat for Humanity is always looking electricians and plumbers. Those of us without a high degree of specialization have to find an organization that's large and wealthy enough to both pay their recruits' ways and to give them enough training so that they'll be valuable. Fortunately, such organizations exist.

On the next page, we'll take a look at options for some less-specialized professional volunteer positions.


Programs for the Unspecialized Professional Volunteer

If you want to get paid for volunteering, you'll need to do something more specialized than ladling soup.
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Institutions that have enough resources to train and take care of their volunteers are rare, but they do exist. Here are a few of them:

  • Peace Corps -- This is one of the big ones. Started in 1960 by John F. Kennedy, the Peace Corps furthers the cause of world peace by sending volunteers to live and work in developing countries. Peace Corps volunteers contribute by teaching, fighting AIDS, helping local business, protecting the environment and creating sustainable agriculture. Pay varies from country to country, but all Peace Corps volunteers have their student loans deferred and receive health care as well as $6,000 toward living expenses when they return home. Recruits must be at least 18 years old and U.S. citizens. College degrees are usually required, but the corps makes exceptions if an applicant has a high level of relevant experience.
  • AmeriCorps -- A descendant of the Civilian Conservation Corps, AmeriCorps is an enormous program designed to mobilize volunteers all over the United States. AmeriCorps members work in education, disaster relief, environmental clean-up programs and in the management of smaller nonprofits and volunteer organizations. Volunteers should be at least 17 years old and U.S. citizens. Since there are so many suborganizations within AmeriCorps, other qualifications vary, but distinguished candidates will have high grades, a college degree and some useful experience. Volunteers receive a small living wage, health insurance and the Segal AmeriCorps Education Award, a $4,725 grant which must be applied toward existing student loans or future tuition payments.
  • Teach for America -- One of AmeriCorps' better-known suborganizations is Teach for America, which recruits recent college graduates to teach in low-income rural and urban schools. Unlike most volunteer projects, Teach for America teachers are paid the same salary as first-year teachers. Their requirements, however, are much stricter: Applicants must have a bachelor's degree and at least a 2.5 GPA in order to be accepted to the program.
  • World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms -- For those who want to enter the volunteer world head on, World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) places volunteers as day laborers on international organic farms. WWOOF farms exist in dozens of countries from Uganda to Australia, and working as a WWOOF volunteer is a great way to get some traveling in while volunteering. Volunteers also learn firsthand the skills necessary to manage an organic farm. No money changes hands except a small fee to join the network; host farms provide room and board.

This is only a small sample of the organizations available to the would-be professional volunteer. On the next page is more information on volunteering and volunteer groups.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • AmeriCorps. "What is AmeriCorps?" 2009. (June 2, 2009).
  • AmeriCorps. "AmeriCorps Factsheet." 2006. (June 2, 2009).
  • AmeriCorps. "Frequently Asked Questions." 2009. (June 2, 2009).
  • Blaydes, John. "The Educator's Book of Quotes." Corwin Press. 2003.
  • CCC Legacy. "A Brief History of the CCC." 2004. (June 3, 2009).
  • Doctors Without Borders. "History and Principles." 2009. (May 31, 2009).
  • Habitat for Humanity. "Frequently Asked Questions - U.S. Volunteer Program." 2009.
  • Peace Corps. "What is the Peace Corps?" 2008. (May 31, 2009).
  • Teach for America. "Our Mission and Approach." 2009. (June 5, 2009).
  • World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. "What is WWOOF?" 2009. (June 3, 2009).