If you’ve followed my work for any length of time you know that I volunteer my time and professional services regularly to help various animal welfare organizations. These days, it is mostly Pima Animal Care Center here in Tucson but I’ve worked with as many as maybe a dozen different organizations over the years. My belief that it is important to give back to the less fortunate in the community which probably dates back to my time at Marquette University. If you don’t know anything about Marquette, all you really need to know is that it is a Jesuit university and the Jesuits are about two things – service and education (okay – oversimplified but those two are key). Anyhoo, today I’d like to take the time to encourage you to do some volunteering and I thought you might appreciate my ‘guide to volunteering’ to help get you started.
Before jumping in, it might go without saying that what works for me might not work for you. Take these suggestions only as a starting point.
1) Find an organization that you want to work with on a regular basis. That seems obvious but it is key to starting a lasting relationship. There are countless worthy non-profit organizations in the world and chances are, you’ll think many of them do important work. Just because you recognize that an organization is doing important work in the community doesn’t mean that it is a good fit for you. There are many ways to help and if you believe an organization is doing good work but the idea of working directly with them makes you uncomfortable, then consider a donation instead. Non-profits need money more than they need uncomfortable volunteers.
2) Make sure that the needs of the organization match with the kind of work that you are interested in performing. Once upon a time I thought it would be fun to work with Habitat for Humanity – after all, I’m fairly handy with tools and I enjoy working with my hands. I went to the local office and told them that I was interested in helping them with their work. After a month of organizing poorly filed papers and cleaning their very dirty office without once doing the kind of work that I wanted to do, we parted ways.
3) Come with an open mind. I wrote that I wasn’t a good fit for the kind of volunteer that Habitat for Humanity needed at the time but it still wasn’t a one and done experience. Sometimes non-profits need help in ways that you don’t expect – you might find that the unexpected job is perfect for you. While you should find volunteer opportunities that interest you, understand that the volunteering isn’t all about you – it’s about helping an organization that you believe in fulfill their mission.
4) Have fun! Within reason. One of the things that volunteers do at Pima Animal Care Center is dog walking. They take the dogs out of their kennels and walk them around the park. It is good for the dogs and it is a fun way to spend time with these animals while making a real improvement in their quality of life. The dog walkers give the dogs exercise, they give them a place to take care of their business outside of their living quarters, and they often will give the dogs a bit of grooming or training. When the dogs are compatible, the dog walkers will walk with one another and enjoy not only their dogs company, but also that of their fellow volunteers. One thing they don’t do – sit around in the staff lounge shooting the breeze getting in the way of the work that needs to be done.
5) Offer suggestions – when appropriate. I’m sure you bring a wealth of knowledge with you when you volunteer and the non-profit you are working with absolutely can benefit from your expertise. Just understand that you might not have the big picture and there might be excellent reasons why things are done a certain way. Don’t take it personally if your suggestion is not given the credit that you think it deserves.
6) Be a team player. When I first started volunteering at Pima Animal Care Center, they had a room that I could use to set up my studio gear. I like making studio portraits for adoptable animals for a number of reasons but two of the big ones are that it allows me to isolate the pet from all distracting backgrounds and it allows me to work with them in an environment that is (relatively) free from distractions. These photos made the animals stand out in their online adoption profiles in a way that was good for those pets but then they hired a full time veterinarian and the space I was using was no longer available. Now I photograph the dogs as they are walked in the park adjacent to the shelter. There are other dogs, ducks, remote controlled boats, cars, children, and any of a number of other distractions but photographing there allows me to continue to work with an organization that I believe in so I’ve made the needed adjustments.
I think that’s it. Do you have any tips of your own that you think I missed? If so, leave a comment and let me know. I’ll leave you for the week with a few more photos from our session this week. If you are interested in Rojo (photo above) or any of the furry ones below, visit Pima Animal Care Center’s website or better yet, stop in and say hello to your next family member!