ader Training, back row) was a Chicago Cares volunteer before she was an employee.
Maura (back row) at a Leader Training in 2011.

At Chicago Cares we’re always delighted to learn that you want to serve and we want you to be able to enjoy our projects. Sometimes, this can be a frustrating experience as projects fill up quickly. Here are a few tips that we hope will open the door to more volunteer opportunities in the coming year.

Signing up as early as possible and cancelling if/when you find you won’t be able to make it is certainly one option. However, as both a fellow volunteer and as a Chicago Cares staff member, this would not be my first recommendation for a few reasons.

  • It’s easy to forget to remove yourself, and another volunteer may be needlessly feeling the same frustration you’re feeling of being locked out.
  • If you remove yourself too late, another volunteer may not sign up, and the project/client is under-served.
  • You might keep signing up for projects you ultimately can’t attend, so you never get the pleasure of serving!

As for recommendations, every volunteer’s situation is different, so here are a few different ways that you can help get your foot in the door and find the right project for your schedule:

Is there a time or day in your schedule that won’t change? Full disclosure – I am historically NOT a morning person, but when I started trying to volunteer at least once a week I realized that I ALWAYS have Saturday mornings open (I subconsciously protected that time because there may be nothing more precious than an open weekend morning.) I fought against signing up for projects on Saturday mornings for a good, long while, but finally realized it was actually the most convenient time for me, because the other days of the week varied too much and were hard to plan. I’ve actually learned to love having Saturday morning as my set time to volunteer because it isn’t a hassle, as I didn’t have to change around anything else in my schedule (though I do sometimes sneak in a nap after my project when I can.)

Can you sign up for a project in a different geographic area? Some of our projects and project sites are more popular than others, so maybe there’s a similar project that doesn’t fill up as quickly in a different area. We try to create projects that are easily accessible via public transportation, and we include directions and transportation and parking information on most project descriptions. Perhaps there are only a few open opportunities near your home, but there are many more close to where you work or go to school. A volunteer project can also be a great excuse to spend some time in a neighborhood you’ve never visited, exploring before or after your service!

Can you sign up for a project in a different issue area? I will tell you that I love our Read-with-Me Jr. projects because I find little kids hysterical – apparently, so do a lot of other volunteers, because those types of projects often fill up quickly. I have been locked out of those opportunities more often that I have been able to serve at them. But, as I mentioned earlier, I had committed myself to trying to do at least one project a week, so I had to find other projects to fulfill my commitment. I signed up for other opportunities that worked with kids; I signed up for other projects that involved reading or doing crafts with other clients (seniors, adults with developmental disabilities); I signed up for projects that didn’t involve working directly with kids, but ultimately benefitted them. The cool thing is that, while I find little kids hysterical, I also learned that I liked working with other groups, too, and other issue areas.

Timing is Everything. I do want to encourage you not to give up because this is the time of year (holidays/new year) our projects are at their fullest, but it typically doesn’t stay that way throughout the rest of the year.

Get ’em While They’re Hot. We also send out a Hot Projects email each week, usually on Monday afternoon. These emails highlight which projects are happening that week that are still looking for volunteers and provide you with the links to sign up as soon as you see a project that’s right for you. Just let me know you’re interested and I’ll sign you up to receive these weekly emails.

We know our volunteers are busy, so we try to do everything we can to make service simple! I hope that these tips will help you as you continue to volunteer with Chicago Cares!

Today’s post is from Maura York, Coordinator of Volunteer & Leader Services.