A Volunteering Guide for Healthcare Students: The Benefits of Giving Back
Volunteerism intends to make the world a better place. But the benefits of volunteering often go far beyond philanthropy—especially for healthcare students.
Perhaps most importantly to students, engaging in volunteerism is associated with higher chances of gaining employment—particularly in rural areas. Volunteers frequently enjoy an expanded network of professional contacts and potential job references, exposure to additional career opportunities, job skill development, additional work experience, and a competitive edge in the job market.
As a student, you may feel too busy and stressed to add volunteerism to your workload. Before ruling it out, though, remember volunteerism has been shown to lower stress and improve mental health. It can also increase your confidence in your abilities—and confidence is often a key player in success in both work and school.
In this piece, we discuss what should factor into your volunteerism choices, how to help ensure your volunteerism will benefit both yourself and others, and provide a list of volunteer opportunities.
How to Decide Where to Volunteer
Healthcare students who want to volunteer should think hard about where they want to volunteer. Between the possibilities to gain relevant skills and experience and the need to balance school and work, a wise decision is important. To help you make the most of your volunteer experience, consider the following:
Opt for career-relevant experience when possible.
Look for volunteer opportunities where you’ll apply and develop the skills required in the position you’re seeking. This can be literal, like volunteering at a hospital using your medical skills if allowed, assisting with administrative tasks, or helping patients with mobility issues get around. However, if those opportunities are limited or you have a cause you’re passionate about, don’t rule out other options. See what skills healthcare jobs often want in addition to medical training—including “soft skills” like communication and “hard skills” like the ability to train others—and find opportunities that can show your talents in these areas on resumes.
Set reasonable expectations.
Many people have high aspirations when they volunteer, excited by the prospect of “saving the world.” Yet, the reality often looks different. Many organizations need volunteers to stuff envelopes, clean facilities, or make copies, which are important but can be tedious. Before starting a volunteer gig, find out what your volunteer activities will include and if there are any opportunities for advancement, and adjust your expectations accordingly.
Avoid volunteer activities that don’t suit you.
Healthcare students and professionals may already be quite comfortable working around blood—but some may not be. Likewise, if you don’t relate well to children, volunteering to work directly with them may be a negative experience for you. And while you may be passionate about a cause that addresses your lived experiences, do some soul-searching before committing—if it’ll be too emotionally taxing or bring up trauma, don’t feel guilty about pursuing other options. Speak with current volunteers and those managing the organizations about what to expect, and then be honest with yourself about what you should do.
Consider whether a volunteer organization could hurt you.
Another thing to consider when choosing a position is whether or not it could actually hurt your prospects if included on a resume. Is it controversial? Does it have a good reputation? Do donations actually go to the causes it claims to help, or do they primarily pay high-level executives? Will your tasks raise eyebrows? Make sure you’re clear about exactly what the organization does and what your role will be. Most opportunities will be with reputable organizations, but, unfortunately, some are less than scrupulous. Charity Navigator may help with this research.
Seek opportunities that could lead directly to employment.
Sometimes, a volunteer opportunity can lead to full-time employment. For example, volunteering with AmeriCorps, Peace Corps, and Teach for America may eventually lead to employment, and many nonprofits look at their existing volunteer pools when they’re ready to hire.
Keep an open mind.
Volunteering is often a great way to learn about various healthcare paths. You may discover an area of interest through volunteering that never would have occurred to you otherwise. So while it’s important to seek opportunities that can enhance your skills, don’t discount those that pique your interest but aren’t directly related to your preselected career path. You never know when a volunteer experience could turn into a lifelong passion.
Making the Most Out of Volunteering
Set yourself up for volunteerism success by doing research ahead of time, adopting a positive mindset, being open to new ways of thinking and performing tasks, and preparing yourself emotionally and mentally.
Here are some suggestions that can help you make the most out of volunteering:
Ensure you can commit time to it.
Some volunteer jobs let you set schedules, while others require certain numbers of hours or long-term commitments. If you can find a short-term position, this could be very valuable, as you can help fill an acute shortage while determining if you can keep a school/volunteer/life balance.
Track your hours.
When it comes time to add volunteerism to your resume and start using it in your job search, you’ll want to know how much actual volunteer time you put in so you can include this in your applications—especially if it’s an impressive amount of time. Ensure you’re keeping track of your hours, including how much time you spend performing certain tasks.
Look for ongoing development opportunities.
When you start volunteering, you’ll likely go where the organization needs you. That doesn’t mean you have to remain there forever. Once you’ve gotten your foot in the door and have developed a good reputation, ask your volunteer coordinator for more responsibility when you feel you’re ready.
Follow the rules.
Enthusiasm is a wonderful thing, but don’t get so carried away with your passion or desire to see change that you overlook the established processes and procedures. Rules are often created to adhere to laws, privacy standards, and other important considerations as experts advise, so be sure you work within the established system rather than against it. It will serve you well for receiving job recommendations and more. If you’ve gained a great deal of experience and have developed a good relationship with higher-ups, only then should you bring up concerns—and do it with a positive spin rather than with criticism.
In school, you’ve learned to ask questions to facilitate your learning. Volunteering is no different. If you’re unclear on instructions, ask for help. It’s better to ask questions than make guesses. Seek any opportunity to learn more about the organization and the people being served.
Take it seriously.
It may be a volunteer position, but it’s still a responsibility, and people will be counting on you. Be respectful, take ownership, show up on time, attend meetings, and accomplish the tasks you’ve committed to. If you’re sick or can’t show up for another reason, let them know ASAP. When it comes time for a recommendation, the responsible, committed volunteers may win the day.
Finding Volunteer Opportunities
Below, you can find lists of volunteer opportunities that may be in different locations all around the country and in some cases may even be done virtually. Some may be specifically for those pursuing healthcare careers, while others can help build general skills.
Volunteer Opportunities to Gain Healthcare Experience
American Association for the Advancement of Science
If promoting the study and advancement of science is something important to you, consider volunteering with the AAAS. The organization offers volunteer opportunities to contribute your expertise to science centers and K-12 schools.
American Red Cross
More than 15,000 nurses and nursing students volunteer for this organization, aiding with blood drives, education, and helping those affected by disasters.
Visit this healthcare network, which has offices worldwide, to explore healthcare-related volunteer opportunities with a wide variety of organizations.
With this volunteer match resource, students and healthcare professionals can search for healthcare-related volunteer opportunities with local organizations such as area hospitals, hospice facilities, nursing homes, etc.
International Volunteer HQ
This organization’s medical volunteer abroad programs and mission trips result from its partnerships with local organizations in more than 40 program countries. Its opportunities extend to nursing students.
This organization delivers needed medical supplies and equipment, medical expertise, and medical training to underserved areas around the world that have been affected by disasters. The need is particularly acute in maternal and child health, disasters and health crises, infectious diseases, non-communicable diseases, and health policy.
Volunteer Opportunities to Build Leadership Skills
Eat Right Foundation
Volunteer leaders are needed at this foundation affiliated with the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Volunteer leaders help govern, raise money, review scholarship applications, and more.
This international grassroots organization recruits volunteer leaders to advocate for policies and populations, act as subject-matter experts, or coordinate volunteer groups.
Volunteer Opportunities to Support Your Community
Habitat for Humanity
Help families in your community by building affordable homes. This organization’s website enables willing volunteers to identify build projects in or near their zip codes.
Points of Light
This organization started by Former President George H.W. Bush works with local communities worldwide to find volunteers to meet critical needs in a wide range of subject areas. Simply enter your location into the site’s search bar, and it will find opportunities near you.
This organization dedicated to feeding the nation’s hungry offers opportunities to volunteer in your local area. The site offers a food bank and pantry locator so you can identify an opportunity near you.
Volunteer Opportunities for Established Healthcare Professionals
The National Association of Free & Charitable Clinics
This professional association for healthcare professionals works to improve access to medical services for the underserved by offering free and charitable clinics around the U.S. Prospective volunteers can sign up to provide dental, education, mammogram, mental health, pharmacy, and other healthcare services.
This telehealth nonprofit helps primary care providers deliver needed care to patients around the country. Volunteer physicians can work with frontline providers to advise them and enhance their work.
Volunteers in Medicine
VIM is working to build and support a network of free primary healthcare in underserved communities by utilizing retired and practicing medical and community volunteers.
Miscellaneous Volunteer Opportunities
Contact organizations near you that frequently need volunteers
In your own community, it’s likely animal shelters, hospitals, retirement homes, Meals on Wheels programs, food pantries, and homeless shelters maintain lists of volunteer opportunities.
Find a volunteer-matching service
Services such as Volunteer Match allow you to search for opportunities based on your location and skillset or interest area.
You can pick where you want to serve, what skills or subject areas you’d like to explore, and organizations you’d like to work with through this national organization.
Be My Eyes
This free app helps connect blind and low-vision people with sighted volunteers to provide visual assistance with various tasks, such as checking expiration dates, reading instructions, or finding their way around.
National Parks Service
The NPS needs volunteers for a variety of activities, from park cleanups to educational programs and more, at parks or park events.
Volunteering During COVID
If you’re interested in volunteering but are concerned about the risks posed by COVID for certain in-person activities, the following opportunities might be more up your alley:
American Medical Association
The AMA maintains a state-by-state list of volunteer opportunities for healthcare professionals who want to serve communities severely affected by COVID-19. The list includes how and where to volunteer (in person or remote) and what you’ll need to consider before signing up.
Crisis Text Line
This 24/7 text line was created to assist people around the U.S. who are in crisis. Volunteers answer texts by listening, helping solve problems, and identifying resources that can help.
This global community works to build the world’s leading open-source enterprise electronic medical record system platform. Volunteers are needed to build code, write documentation, provide translation services, contribute help desk support, and more.