Can you be 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.