Your Volunteer Application: Don’t come across as a weirdo

I’ve had a couple of stints as Volunteer Coordinator for 2 organisations in Ecuador (2007) & Bolivia (2012) and in those roles I dealt with applications from lots of potential volunteers. This post is about a little known but important part of the Volunteer Coordinators (VC) role: Filtering-out unsuitable volunteer applicants.

There are 3 types of volunteer application that trigger the ‘unsuitable’ warning bells for a VC:

  • Time wasters
  • Too needy
  • Too weird

Time wasters are the most annoying, but the easiest to spot. They send cookie-cutter emails which are non-descript / generic, to *any* number of volunteer programs, but don’t end up volunteering with any of them:
Hi this is Janet Doe from the University of xxxxxxx, I’m really interested in volunteering with you, can you send me more information? […]

And this is my first piece of advice: taylor your emails to be specific to the organisation you are applying for. This means that you need to read their website and (usually) refer to it in your email:
Hi Mundo Foundation, This is Janet Doe from the University of xxxxxxx, I’m really interested in working with your organisation this summer, I see from your website that you have English teaching roles, would I be able to work with you for ~3 months between June and August this year? […] I have experience teaching […] I’ve travelled independently before […] I know the role requires intermediate Spanish, I’m currently taking Spanish classes […]
What you are showing here is that you’ve seen the website and know what the requirements of the role are, you may be young (at Uni) but you have some relevant experience and you’re working on your language skills. This is a good introductory email. Be careful not to spoil it by asking a question that is already covered on the organisation’s website.

The second type of unsuitable application are those in the “To needy” category, these are usually inexperienced guys, who ask questions. Lots of questions, e.g. about travel, visas, accommodation, bus timetables, prices and just about anything else you care to mention. In general I don’t mind dealing with ‘rookies’, in fact I’ve seen some of them make great volunteers, but you should be independent as a volunteer; so do your own research for your travel & visa issues. The VC requires you to be self-sufficient and an asset to the organisation, not someone constantly knocking on the door with one issue after another.
You’re an independent volunteer, right?

The last category is the weird and wonderful. As a VC you’ll know it when you see it: e.g. “can I bring my dog?” or people who write 800 word introductory emails. Don’t make silly jokes on your application or come across as opinionated, a know-all or wildly over-enthusiastic. These are all red flags for a VC. Your personality should still come through, but with the attributes of competence, reliability and someone who will fit-in to the organisation.

Unsuitable volunteer applications will be ignored by most volunteer programs, i.e. no acknowledgement, no feedback, no response. Why? because VC’s don’t want a game of email ping-pong with a disgruntled  volunteer explaining the reasons why his application was rejected. This is not ideal, but we are talking about grass-roots volunteer organisations that are run on a shoe-string, 1st world assumptions don’t apply here.

All volunteer organisations are all different, some are run like western companies, you’ll have a job description, you’ll send your cv, supply references, have a Skype interview, even sign a contract. Others will invite you to work with them starting the following day, based on a single email.

I used to advise volunteer applicants not to send a cv when applying for a volunteer position, unless the organisation specifically asks for it; that was until I received a great single page cv from a German girl who applied to the organisation I was working for in Bolivia. The single page cv included her picture and it had an overview of her education & experience as it pertained to volunteering, e.g. College/University, Travel, Languages, Hobbies, Interests, relevant work experience, etc. Just a couple of screenfull’s of well-written information;  a really good idea and much better than the rather wordy (boring) 3-4 page business cv’s that sometimes came through with volunteer applications.

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