Lifestyle & Culture

The Truth About Volunteering in DC

July 20, 2016

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A FRIEND OF A FRIEND of a friend lamented recently that after she had finally been vetted and accepted as a volunteer at a big downtown museum, she wasn’t being tapped very often to work.

Opportunities to do good, meet tons of overqualified people eager to help.

And it makes sense that the “name brand” organizations—the National Gallery of Art, for instance, the Holocaust Museum, well-known hospitals, some of the homeless organizations—have a surfeit of helping hands. After all, people have heard of them.

But if you just want to be useful, really want to make a difference, there’s something you can do. Rather than get in line at a prestigious organization, check out the possibilities at lesser-known institutions.

VolunteerSubWebThe conundrum—how to volunteer for an organization you never heard of—is solved, at least in the case of 368 small charities per year, by the Catalogue for Philanthropy.

About to hit its 14th year, the catalogue is indeed a catalogue, on paper and online,  showcasing on-the-ground agencies and organizations that are making a difference, in the arts, in literacy, in social welfare, and more.

Aline Newman, director of communications and marketing for the Catalogue, points out that the large institutions can fill up quickly with volunteers because, aside from being well known, they can absorb the workers from corporations and law firms that might designate a pro bono effort by their employees.

The Catalogue, she says, highlights the work of organizations that apply to the group each year. “We look at 200-plus applications each year, from groups with operating budgets of from about $100,000 to $3 million.” The cutoff is $3 million because, Newman says, at that level of operation, the organization is probably attracting enough funding to go off on its own.

The chosen organizations appear in the paper Catalogue for a year, then remain online for another three years, after which they are welcome to apply to the Catalogue again.

So if you’re looking for something meaningful to do (on top of all the other meaningful stuff you already do), go to the Catalogue’s website. You’ll see a header marked Get Involved, then a pull-down for Volunteering: That’s a list of half a dozen upcoming events that need help on that day. For a longer-term commitment, on the homepage click instead on Find a Charity, then choose a category (culture, education, international, etc.) and browse the charities featured. Each one will list its own volunteer opportunities, whether it’s a long-term commitment (probably requiring training) to help an adult learn to read, or slightly more casual, such as providing administrative help.

It will take a bit of searching around to find the opportunity that’s right for you, but most things in life, even doing work for no pay, require some effort, right?

—Nancy McKeon 

One thought on “The Truth About Volunteering in DC

  1. Andrea Harnett says:


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