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Good for Santa Barbara

How to Get Involved with Nonprofits? Discover Your Interests First

Before volunteering, think about your skills, passions and availabiity, and focus your efforts to make a good match for you and the organization

Rachael Steidl and her daughter, Emily, 14, volunteer to help assemble toiletry kits at a Direct Relief packing event. Click to view larger
Rachael Steidl and her daughter, Emily, 14, volunteer to help assemble toiletry kits at a Direct Relief packing event. (Contributed photo)

Volunteer opportunities are endless, considering more than 1.5 million nonprofit organizations are registered in the United States, according to the National Center for Charitable Statistics.

Volunteer work is the backbone for a nonprofit. It’s an essential part of serving society.

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Veteran nonprofit volunteer and entrepreneur Rachael Steidl said it takes more than just a good heart to make a difference.

She suggests potential volunteers assess their skills, values, interests and topics they feel passionate about before choosing a nonprofit.

First, find your volunteer focus and connect it to a passion, said Steidl, founder and former owner of Santa Barbara ParentClick.com, an online community for parents, businesses and nonprofits.

“For me, volunteering is about connecting in a way that makes you want to continue,” said Steidl, who recently launched Simplify & Sync, a marketing consulting business, and is exploring a nonprofit collaboration in the area of teenage mental health issues.

“It’s important for everyone to be exposed to different types of opportunities. You don’t know if you’re going to be passionate about something until you try it.”

She recommends narrowing down volunteer choices and choosing where to focus your time and skills.

Steidl has worked with several nonprofits, serving as board president of the Teddy Bear Cancer Foundation, oversight committee chairwoman for the Women’s Fund of Santa Barbara, as a volunteer with the Mental Wellness Center and Youth Making Change, and as a board member with the Santa Barbara Scholarship Foundation, Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse and National Charity League. She is also a former Katherine Harvey Fellow at the Santa Barbara Foundation.

“Sometimes it begins with making a list of interests, asking around to other people, finding out who to contact in the nonprofit and then visiting,” she told Noozhawk. “Talk with volunteer coordinators who have a better understanding of the structure.”

Santa Barbara resident Marisa Grimes listened to friends’ recommendations in choosing her volunteer activities.

“It was through different friends, church or various interests,” the mother of two boys said. “I looked into it, felt passionate, then I joined.”

Grimes has volunteered with Direct Relief Women, a Santa Barbara-based group focused on child health and emergency response to the world’s most vulnerable populations.

She also has prepared food bags and volunteered for Storyteller Children’s Center, a preschool for homeless and at-risk children in Santa Barbara.

“You have to decide how you want to help,” Grimes said. “In Santa Barbara, there are so many organizations to get involved with and there’s a multitude of groups.”

She suggests people searching for a charity try new opportunities.

“It’s about what your passion is and what moves you to volunteer,” Grimes said. “There’s only so much time to give, so you have to be somewhat selective.”

Steidl suggests that adults check out Santa Barbara Partners in Education, an initiative of the Santa Barbara County Education Office that connects individuals with schools and students.

“They have an excellent volunteer database of opportunities for adults, and it’s well organized,” she said. “They have opportunities with schools, and it’s ideal for people who don’t have a ton of time.”

Steidl urges families, friends and young adults to volunteer together as a group. Make the volunteer time a family event, she said, because it can be more fun experiencing the process as a group.

Choose an organization with a particular focus that excites everyone, she added.

“It’s important that parents are part of the connection in the beginning so they can help evaluate,” said the mother of three daughters, including twins. “It can be physical work, but the kids love it because you see a project from start to finish. Whether it’s planting a garden, cleaning or painting — you have the satisfaction of seeing the change.”

Nonprofits open an opportunity to figure out strengths and skills for future jobs, she said.

Career centers on high school or college campuses can be a useful resource for students searching for charities.

“They have access and can be a good starting point for kids and young adults,” Steidl said.

She recommends Santa Barbara Safety Town, a program sponsored by Soroptimist International of Santa Barbara, for children interested in volunteering. Its weeklong summer camp teaches kindergartners and first-graders about safety issues.

“They are given an incredible amount of opportunity and learning to work in groups, leadership skills,” Steidl said. “The kids learn to value themselves because they are working with adults who value them.”

The time commitment, and the long- and short-term duties, should all be part of the considerations.

“Be authentic and tell them why you are there,” Steidl advised. “Some are big commitments, but most people don’t realize there are many opportunities in the community. People can find meaningful connections locally.

“Look for opportunities where you get to be around the demographic. You don’t always get that connection about what you are truly doing and how you are affecting change when you get tickets to fundraiser events.”

Sometimes, jobs lacking in glamor pay off later.

“It’s important to have a willingness to start at the bottom so you can gain experience that will help in the future,” Steidl said. “The grunt work can be rewarding and educational. It’s great to learn from the bottom up.”

Once a volunteer commits to a charity, Steidl offers these tips to teens:

» Show up on time

» Dress appropriately

» Stay off cell phones

“Sometimes you are working with people who can potentially be resources and referral for the future,” Steidl said. “The way you present yourself is important.”

She offers one final step: “Give feedback about your volunteer experience. Constructive feedback is important if you are committed to the organization and want to see them succeed.”

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Noozhawk staff writer Brooke Holland can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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