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Volunteering: Priceless Experience for Free

"When I grow up, I want to be a ____________." (Fill in the blank.)

Do you remember your answer—or answers—to that question when you were a kid? I envisioned myself as an archaeologist (think Indiana Jones) who would also be a firefighter when I wasn't busy minding my veterinary practice.

And then it happened—growing up. For many of us, the archaeologist became an accountant, the firefighter morphed into a freight driver, and the closest we came to understanding animals was the dog's life we seemed to be leading, working at jobs that sometimes fell short of our childhood dreams.

The good news is that it's never too late to realize your dreams—or at least to taste them once again—through volunteering. Sure, volunteering is the right thing to do and is its own reward. America's 1.5 million nonprofit organizations count on volunteers to deliver their important, often lifesaving, programs and services. Nearly 65 million of us rise to the call for service and participate in some type of voluntary activity each year.

But volunteering isn't just about helping others; it's also a chance to learn new things, meet new people, and, frankly, have some FREE fun.

In my case, I never became a full-fledged archaeologist, but I have volunteered at archaeological digs conducted through a local university—and sported my Indiana Jones hat while doing so.

Still want to be a firefighter? Almost 75 percent of all U.S. firefighters are volunteers (www.nvfc.org). And veterinarian wannabes, you need look no further than the local Humane Society (www.hsus.org), or another animal-rescue organization, for volunteer positions sure to give you your share of puppy love.

In fact, you can find a nationwide database of interesting and rewarding volunteer opportunities near you on AARP's Create The Good Web site.

Be sure to consider the following factors in evaluating whether a specific volunteer position is right for you:

  •  Time commitment and schedule: Just because you're volunteering your time doesn't mean you can show up whenever you feel like it. The nonprofit organization you're supporting needs to be able to count on you. Be clear on the time commitments and schedules before you say "yes."
  •  Special skills and training: Ask ahead of time whether any special skills are required to perform the volunteer work and whether or not volunteers receive any special training. Free training is one of the perks in many volunteer positions.
  •  Work environment and culture: If you're considering an ongoing volunteer position, ask to spend a few days "test driving" it before you commit to it for the long haul. Just as with a paid position, you need to make sure you feel comfortable in the work environment and with your colleagues—otherwise your voluntary endeavor could turn into a mistake for all involved.
  •  Future prospects: Volunteering can lead to opportunities for paid employment with the host organization. If you are considering a volunteer position with the hope of eventual employment in mind, ask in advance if that is even a possibility. Otherwise, you might be disappointed later.

In addition to all the other rewards and benefits of volunteering, remember that many out-of-pocket expenses incurred through volunteering, including transportation and mileage, may be tax-deductible. See IRS Publication 526, Charitable Contributions, for details.


Jeff Yeager is the author of the book, "The Ultimate Cheapskate's Road Map to True Riches." His Web site is www.UltimateCheapskate.com.

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