How to Talk Your Way into the Right Volunteer Opportunity

(Note: This is the second instalment in a series on telling stories about yourself. The first is about key work narratives.)Some call it volunteerism. Some say it’s advocacy. Some label it leadership.It can happen at school, in your neighborhood, at your temple, or at your local rec center.Whatever you call it, building your career thorough strategic service is smart. (It also makes you happy.) And you want to make sure the right opportunities find you.

Here’s how to ensure you’re telling the right stories about yourself—whether they’re volunteering, hobby, or family stories—so you’re offered service opportunities that align with your goals. Some opportunities to serve show up when we open our Facebook feeds—friends asking for help with a carwash, collecting for the food bank, or wrapping gifts for foster kids. Others only come via invitation, like being recruited to chair a fancy fundraiser, teach a class, or host an event.To get asked to volunteer in leadership or high-profile roles, you have to make sure people know you’re available and qualified to help. Yes, people decide how they feel about you based on what they see you do. But some of the people in positions to offer you leadership opportunities might not be in your close circles—they’re not going to that TEDx talk you gave, not scoping Instagram for mission trip pics, or not invited to the charity dinner you coordinated.So by telling little stories about these moments, you’re planting the seeds in the minds of others that you are the kind of woman who can manifest change in your community.You might be wondering: how do I talk about the good things I’ve done without seeming like a goody-goody?     Good question.You don’t have talk about previous volunteerism. You do have to talk about things you’ve taken the lead on, with friends, in the community, or with your family. Talk about something you learned. (Something more than “I learned how important it is to volunteer.”) Talk about a moment when someone helped you. Talk about a moment when you realized an assumption or plan you’d made wasn’t going to work, and how you adjusted. Talk about a time you grew or changed.Example 1: A childhood storyCurrently, I volunteer helping select eighth graders for scholarships to parochial schools. I was an unlikely candidate for this position because I don’t have children, and I’m not a super-involved member of any Catholic church.But I wasn’t worried. I knew it wasn’t a high-skills volunteer spot. You needed to be able to relate to young teens and to understand the values of a Catholic education.So, I mentioned to a woman involved in the organization that I wanted to volunteer, and had the time to do so. I talked about why I cared about her organization’s mission; I told her I valued my Catholic school experience. I gave her insight into what role I could play by telling her a little about what I felt like I learned in school and why it mattered to me today.The takeaway: It’s not always important how you got the skills you want to share. It’s just important that you can talk about why they matter to you, and how you could put them to use.Example 2: A hobby storyOne day several years ago, I heard some people in my city were organizing the first Arizona Cocktail Week. I do not work in the spirits industry, nor do I know how to bartend, but I used to write a thrice-weekly cocktail column. So I cold-called the organizers and told some short stories about the column, how I founded and now host a cocktail competition, and how I love to go out for drinks. And then I asked, “Do you need anyone with these skills to help?”The takeaway:  With these skills. I didn’t volunteer to clean up, pour drinks, or cut garnishes. I mean, I can do those things, but they don’t align with my professional goals.That year, I ended up organizing and hosting a book cocktail party celebrating Hemingway and his favorite drinks.The next year, I organized and hosted a cocktail-and-food pairing dinner party with storytelling, and a cocktail book party for Anna Holmes and Kate Harding of Jezebel called “Strong Women, Strong Drinks.”And this year, we did another cocktail-and-food pairing dinner party with storytelling.So what’s your example? Maybe you want to start volunteering to teach a fitness class. If so, tell a story about your Grand Canyon hike. Or about the Iron Man you did in Coeur d’Alene. Or about how you taught all your siblings to ride their bikes. The organization will help you get the training you need, but you’ve got to show them you’ve got a starting point in your own life.Or maybe you want to serve on the board of a charity. Then you should tell a story about your personal connection to that cause, and about a time you did something that the charity needs someone to do—even if you did it informally for your friends.It’s time to start connecting the good works you want to be doing with the work you’ve already done, even if it was just done while living your life.