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Work-Life Balance: Finding Time to Volunteer

Ways to make a difference with a busy schedule

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For some, it's a hot meal and a warm voice at the door. It's a big sister, a mentor, or a hand to hold. For others, it's a way to reach out, share time, and make a difference. And for all those connected by volunteering, it's life-changing.

April is National Volunteer Month, when towns and cities across the U.S. honor the year-round contributions of people who are pitching in, making an impact, and serving as inspiration for us to take action on our own.

You may have the desire to devote time to a cause close to your heart but feel stymied by an already-hectic pace. Finding space in a busy schedule can be a challenge, but these steps can help you find the fit that feels right for you.

Explore Your Schedule Options: Because over-committing yourself will eventually lead to frustration and burnout, it's important to keep your own capacity in mind and set a pace you're comfortable with.

Depending on your work schedule, you may want to help out at one-time events, such as fundraising festivals; set aside a block of hours per month; or commit to a regular, long-term position. Get in touch with agencies that spark your interest and ask about their policies. You may be able to get your feet wet with a limited schedule or explore different projects within the organization so you can gauge what works best for you, whether it be behind the scenes, in a leadership role, or somewhere in between.

If you are unsure of how much time you can commit from the outset, keep in mind that many volunteer opportunities are well-suited to flexible hours. Once you have completed the orientation process at a nursing home, for example, you may be welcome to stop by at any time of the day to visit lonely elderly residents or help organize recreational activities.

Collecting grocery items or clothes to donate, walking and giving love to homeless pets at shelters, and pitching in with clerical work for a non-profit are just a few of the flexible volunteering options available. If you prefer to contribute from home, writing newsletters or designing web pages may be a perfect fit for you. Visit http://volunteerguide.org/ for flexible volunteering opportunities that you can manage on your own time.

Volunteer with Family, Friends or a Social Group: Focusing on helping others is a meaningful way for families to spend time together and strengthen your ties.

Volunteering deepens a child's sense of empathy, boosts self-esteem, and enhances psychological, social, and intellectual development, according to research cited by the United Way. It's not surprising, then, that children who feel connected to their communities are also less likely to engage in at-risk behavior.

If you're searching for a recreational outlet that will get you out and about and meeting people, try joining a social group that engages in volunteer activities. Many groups rally around a common interest, such as hiking, pet care, cooking, or photography. Look for groups that combine your hobbies with community service, or organize a volunteer movement in your current circle.

Seek Out Sources: Joanne Fritz, our Nonprofit Charitable Organizations Guide, illustrates how you can Find Your Perfect Volunteer Opportunity and our Internships Guide, Penny Loretto, has compiled a list of Volunteer Opportunities from About.com Guides.

Working For a Good Cause -- Corporate Volunteer Programs: Corporate volunteer programs foster employee loyalty, pride, better health, and well-being. In turn, VolunteerMatch reports, organizations that reach out to the community enjoy greater brand awareness and consumer trust.

Your workplace may not currently have a volunteer program in place, but one employee can spark a company-wide passion. Speak to your manager about developing a mentoring program or partnering with a local charity. If management isn't ready to take the step, perhaps you can focus on organizing a benefit walk or fundraising event for a cause you and your co-workers care strongly about.

Keep In Mind: No matter which non-profit you would like to become part of, you will most likely need to apply and/or interview for the opportunity; this is an important step agencies must take to ensure that you and the position are an appropriate match.

Remember, too, that if you feel out of place at one organization, you're bound to be at home at another. Somewhere along the way, for instance, you may discover that it's mentoring, not fundraising, that energizes you. Follow your heart: Your help is needed wherever it leads.

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