How to Go Green: Volunteerism

how to go green volunteerism photo

Photo credit: qnr/Creative Commons

[by Christine Lepisto]

More than half of American adults -- and an even bigger percentage of teenagers - volunteer for various causes. In general, there is currently a trend toward "downshifting, and taking time out of their busy lives to provide unpaid service to others. Many of these people are taking their cue from the National Downshifting Manifesto, which proclaims that individuals are setting time aside for the things that are important to them "for the benefit of my health, my well being, my environment, and for those around me whom I dearly love.

But finding the right match between volunteer and charity is not always an easy task. As was bemoaned in the TreeHugger Forums, a "waste of enthusiasm" can occur when environmental groups turn away willing participants. Why would they turn down free labor? Because high-profile organizations may be overwhelmed with offers; meanwhile, smaller groups could be struggling along with too few hands. Plus, special skills may be necessary, or time commitments could be too rigid. If you decide to extend yourself, look for an organization that gives you good vibes, that way, your interest level remains high and your motivation is optimized. Our best advice is to commit to something that interests you, and then apply the same principals to you volunteer and advocacy work you use to achieve success in your life and career.

Finally, don't forget that being a volunteer should be a learning experience. The biggest difference you make in the world may not be the two weeks you spend on a specific project, but the twenty or forty years thereafter. When your feelings of advocacy kick in -- manifesting themselves in the way you vote, your financial decisions, and your overall lifestyle - you'll know you were influenced by what you saw and experienced during that time, and you'll be ready to spread the word. You may not realize it, but you could be volunteering to become a green activist. (We mean that in a good way!) Keep reading for our top tips for getting started when it comes to green volunteering.

Back To Top Λ

Top Green Volunteerism Tips

  1. Find the Time to Volunteer
    Your first reaction to the thought of volunteering your time may well be: what time? But you can't help others until you help yourself. So ask yourself the following: Do you need more time for fitness? Then volunteer to do something active. Would you invest some time in continuing education, building skills or strengthening your resume? Volunteering can expand your horizons and help you build good contacts. Not enough time with your family? Nothing brings people closer together than working side-by-side for a good cause. Just remember: Don't over-commit, but ask yourself how volunteering could be the value-added time you will anyways dedicate to goals of your own. Worried this approach seems selfish? Don't! The most effective volunteers are those who do things that match their pace.

  2. Do Your Research
    Use the Internet as a platform for social networking in order to find interesting and worthwhile causes. For example, follow leads from sites you trust, like Planet Green's NGO Partners or join in the TreeHugger Forums. Networking in person more your thing? Connect with a GreenDrinks -- a global organization with hundreds of local factions where people get together over cocktails. (No GreenDrinks near you? Volunteer project found: Launch a group!) Finally, check out some of the links at the end of this article for major organizations, but don't forget to search for local ones, too.

  3. Bring Your Best Skills to the Table
    You may be asking yourself, But what can I offer?. Look for opportunities that match your interests and skills, and be a little selfish (see tip 1 above) so that you can become selfless. You may be surprised to learn how global and local environmental concerns dovetail with your day-to-day activities, in your quest to understand the whats and whys of choosing the right cause. But rest assured that as a person with environmental interests, you're likely to be in demand. Here's why: 58 percent of Meals on Wheels programs, for example, have lost volunteers due to spikes in gas prices; meanwhile, groups such as Pedal People -- an organization that carts recycling and delivers groceries - are filling the gap. And an issue like dealing with waste from Katrina, for example, demands volunteers with environmental expertise and passion.

  4. Begin Near Home
    Don't overlook the fact that the causes that interest you most may be those at your doorstep. Volunteering close to home has many advantages. For instance, finding time to work closer to home can be easier on your schedule, you will be respected in your community, you will make a difference that may benefit your colleagues and loved ones, and you'll cut down on your environmental impact via transport. Great ways to participate include: Joining Community Supported Agriculture, which allows volunteers to take part in the harvest. Or you could help mobilize schools and local groups to work together with Clean Up the World, a U.N.-sanctioned, community-based project. Let Planet Green show you how to Green your Community and make your neighborhood a better environment for living.

  5. ...Or Volunteer Away From Home
    Volunteering may make you think outside of your day-to-day green routine. If you are traveling to do your duty, check out disaster blogs or travel blogs by people who have been there before you; it will help you pack light and be culturally current. You can also search the TreeHugger archives for special topics like environmental issues in disaster recovery, or relief housing options. And don't forget to plan ahead to green your travel.

  6. Volunteer to See the World
    "Voluntouring" is a growing trend. But take special care in selecting opportunities to offer your time and energy abroad. You could potentially be taking a job away from a local person. Plus, exhausting your money and resources on international travel can get pricey, and those jet emissions could perhaps be counterproductive to your work. Also, the rapid growth of Philanthropic Travel has spurred some questionable practices. Watch out for travel agencies masquerading as volunteer organizations. It's not unusual to ask volunteers to help fund their upkeep, but the contribution should be reasonable. A reputable volunteer organization will have longer-term people on location who serve as a link to help newbies focus on a project. As always, ask for references, which is the best way to weed out the bad actors and find a good experience, which will benefit you and the cause you seek to bolster.

  7. Take Action in a Day or in an Hour!
    Keep an eye out for short-term volunteer opportunities. It only takes a moment to donate your old eyeglasses or start a guerilla garden. If you live in a major metropolitan area, you can check the calendar at One Brick commitment-free volunteering and r.s.v.p. to spend a day for a good cause. Or look for events that need hoards of volunteers to make them happen, such as the West Coast Green Conference. You can often get access to great events as a benefit of volunteering your time.

  8. Champion Your Cause
    Have you got what it takes to embrace a leadership role in changing the world? Don't underestimate your personal power to advocate for green causes. True environmental heroes come from all walks of life. Take inspiration from heroes such as Rosa Hilda Ramos, the 63-year old grandmother who took on the power companies to protect the wetlands; or from Brower Youth Award winner Q'Orianka Kilcher, who, at the tender age of 15, shed light upon the fact that 800,000 barrels of toxic wastewater were being dumped into a Peruvian Amazonian river basin. Apply the wisdom of tradition, like Jesus Leon Santos, who uses ancient agriculture systems to turn drought lands into fertile grounds, or take a modern approach like TreeHugger founder Graham Hill. Wherever you find inspiration, know that you can advocate for a greener world, even in the small things that you do.

  9. Put Your Money to Work
    So you really, really don't have the time? Or maybe you are volunteering already and see clearly that there is no point in dying rich? Then consider offering some funds toward good green causes. To select where your money goes, we suggest using the same techniques mentioned above for choosing an organization with which to spend your time.

  10. Spread the Word
    You did it! You love the feeling of giving back! It would be a terrible shame not to share everything you learned in your quest to find the perfect volunteering match for yourself. But you don't necessarily want to go all evangelical on your friends. What to do? Spread the word where people who are in a similar search can find it. Looking for a great place to start? Go to the TreeHugger Forums Volunteering thread.

Back To Top Λ

Green Volunteering: By the Numbers

  • 109 million: Number of American adults who volunteer annually -- that's 56% of all adults.

  • 2.4 billion: Number of hours U.S. teenagers volunteer each year.

  • $225 billion: Estimated dollar value of volunteer labor in the USA.

  • 59: Percentage of teenagers -- that's 13.3 million kids -- who volunteer 3.5 hours per week.

  • 18: Minimum age requirement to serve in the PeaceCorps.

  • 55: Minimum age to serve in Senior Corps.

  • 139: Number of host countries that have invited the Peace Corps.

  • 70: Number of countries the Peace Corps currently serves.

Sources: USA Freedom Corps; Together GreenNetwork for Good; World Volunteer Web
Back To Top Λ

Green Volunteerism: Getting Techie

Virtual volunteering
It's not quite as simple as getting a good night's sleep while your Second Life avatar does the heavy lifting, but volunteering is going virtual. If your time or mobility is limited, or if you enjoy putting your computer skills to work, you could volunteer to design logos, graphics, web sites for good green causes, to write tips and advice on going green, to organize and publicize events, or much more. The UN has a dedicated organization for Online UN Volunteers.

Volunteer Role Models
If you still don't know where to start, check out the personal stories of celebrities and high-profile do-gooders. Reading their inspirational stories and seeing the changes they can effect in the world may motivate your search for your path to making a difference. A few role models we love include: Majora Carter, the phenomenal force for environmental justice whose motto is "Greening the Ghetto." Wangari Maathai, who won a nobel prize for her work on environment and sustainability with the Green Belt Movement. Jill Buck, founder of the Go Green Initiative. Jeff Yeager, who has turned 24 years of experience as CEO and senior executive in nonprofit organizations into being "selfishly employed" volunteering his time and offering his wisdom by writing and speaking.

Intimidated? Don't be. Check out these everyday heroes: Mike Ward, a high school principal who decided to ride his bike to work. Taylor Schmidt, a student from the town of Greensburg Kansas whose enthusiasm for the green movement and the amazing things it's doing for his town after the devastation caused by the tornado that leveled it are an inspiring look at the future of green in America.

Back To Top Λ

Get Started with Green Volunteerism

Social Network Sites for Finding Volunteer Opportunities
TreeHugger Forums Volunteering
World Volunteer Web
Volunteer Genie
Help Exchange Net
Energ!ze for volunteer leaders

Global Volunteer Organizations
Volunteer International 
Global Volunteers
Peace Corps
UN Volunteers
The Nature Conservancy
The National Park Service
Fish and Wildlife Service
US EPA Volunteer Monitoring
Habitat for Humanity
Kibbutz volunteer
Local Volunteer Organizations
Obviously, we can't begin to link all the local organizations that need helping hands, like your local animal shelter. So take an extra minute to scan your local phone book or hook up with local charities and organizations. Some sites which offer searches by area code of location are noted here:
Volunteer Match
Volunteer Solutions
Planet Green's NGO Partners
Planet Green is proud to partner with several of the world's leading nonprofit environmental organizations and advocacy groups. These organizations, dedicated to sustaining and preserving our planet, bring their vision for a better future to Planet Green through a wide range of initiatives and support. Click on our individual partners to learn more about their great work:
Earth Pledge 
Earth Watch Institute 
Environmental Media Association 
Global Green USA 
Global Inheritance 
Green Belt Movement National Wildlife Federation 
The Nature Conservancy 
Ocean Conservancy
Green Volunteering Gear
Some gear you can use when you're out volunteering
Freeplay LED Lantern, Flashlights and Radios
Hymini Portable Power
Solio Portable Power
Voltaic Solar Bags
Sigg Water Bottles
Back To Top Λ

Green Volunteerism: From the Archives

Dig deeper into these articles about volunteering from the Planet Green and TreeHugger archives.
Volunteerism in Planet Green

Volunteerism in TreeHugger

How to Go Green: Volunteerism
[by Christine Lepisto]