Since your days on the Farm, the community service opportunities that once seemed to find their way into your weekend may have fallen by the wayside. If only the entire world had its very own Haas Center for Public Service. But worry not. Whether you’re looking for a chance to contribute to a good cause, put your talents to use, or simply meet new people, there are lots of ways to pitch in and help others.
Jessica Blackshaw, ’13, MA ’15, is the executive director at YCore, a nonprofit that pairs young professionals with local organizations. Located in San Francisco and founded by a team of Stanford alums, YCore helps its fellows—slightly over half of whom work in tech—lend their professional skills to nonprofits. A longtime volunteer herself, Blackshaw shared some tips about how to get—and stay—involved.
Decide how you want to do it.
Blackshaw describes two kinds of volunteering: direct service and behind-the-scenes organizational work. Direct service involves on-the-ground work with people in your community, such as cleaning up a park or volunteering at a food bank. Organizational work, which often requires a larger investment of time, involves leading a specific service project for a nonprofit or working with the organization on big-picture goals.
Once you know which type of volunteering you want to do, it’s time to think about the needs that you see in the world—whether in your town, for a group you identify with, or around a cause you care about. “I really encourage people to think about themselves as part of the community and then think about, ‘OK, what are the crises in the communities that I’m a part of that I might want to get involved with?’” says Blackshaw.
For Tracy Weatherby, MBA ’87, that was food security. She volunteered for Second Harvest of Silicon Valley, which supplies food at 900 locations in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties. Then, Weatherby left a 20-year career in consulting to become Second Harvest’s vice president of strategy and advocacy. “Food is so foundational,” she says, noting how without enough to eat, all other aspects of life become more difficult. “I like the tangible piece of how you can really affect people’s lives and ensure that they’re ready to thrive.” The scale of Second Harvest also appealed to her. They provide food to about 450,000 people each month (an 80 percent increase from before the pandemic) and advocate for food security initiatives on the county, state, and federal levels.
Assess what you can give (and what you hope to get).
No matter where you are in life, you have something to offer. Whether it’s a few hours once a month or 10 hours a week, be up-front about how much time you can give. Consistency can be more important than total hours. “We see a trend every year that a lot of people want to volunteer in November and December,” Weatherby says. “We are so appreciative of that, but we see this huge drop in volunteers in January, and we still have to do the same level of work.”
And don’t be afraid to consider what you want. “I think sometimes volunteers are afraid to admit that they want to get something out of the volunteering experience,” says Blackshaw, but it’s “totally OK.” This might be an opportunity for you to develop new skills, pursue a previously neglected interest, or try out a field unrelated to your day job. Blackshaw says that young professionals looking to get more involved with nonprofit organizations can often deploy skills in social media, copywriting, data analysis, and design.
Or maybe you just want to feel good. Giving back can do that for you. A recent study by Jeffrey Pfeffer, PhD ’72, and Sara Singer, MBA ’93, professors at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, found that after people volunteered at events sponsored by their workplace, they reported having better health, feeling less at risk for depression, and feeling more bonded to their co-workers.
Don’t underestimate the value of your dollar.
“I think a lot of the time people feel like giving their time is better or more noble than giving their money. No, your money is so important!” says Blackshaw. For nonprofits like Second Harvest, individual donations make up the majority of operational budgets. Ninety-five percent of donations to Second Harvest are used for services that directly support their clients, and they know how to stretch your dollar. While they welcome food donations, Second Harvest has state-wide relationships with growers that allow them to buy food at better rates than individuals can.
Giving a small amount to your nonprofit of choice is fine. Recurring donations, no matter the size, help organizations budget and provide stability. “A lot of nonprofits that are providing critical services don’t know which way the wind is going to blow, and so they have trouble budgeting and predicting,” says Blackshaw. “But if they know ‘OK, I’ve got these 30 people who are giving me 10 bucks a month. That’s $300 that I know that I can spend every month,’ that makes a huge difference for them and their stability going forward.”
Realize that making a difference doesn’t always mean solving the problem.
Blackshaw urges volunteers to stay curious and to focus on understanding the needs of the organization they’re working with, rather than making assumptions about what will be helpful.
And don’t worry too much about the effect of your work alone. “I really encourage people to stop thinking about their impact, because the reality is that your impact might be quite small,” says Blackshaw. “What you’re really trying to do is be part of a solution to a problem, and build that relationship, and learn something, and share something with somebody. And that collaboration is so much more important than how much you as an individual were able to move a particular needle.”
Jacqueline Munis, ’25, is an editorial intern at Stanford. Email her at email@example.com.