Originally posted April 2nd, 2014, revised April 2017
Wouldn’t it be nice if things could just be consistent? Like if the way you get a letter of recommendation from a professor you could just translate over to getting one from a place you volunteer. Unfortunately, things are never that clean. So how exactly does someone go about getting a letter from a volunteer agency?
A word of caution though. Volunteering is meant to dedicate your time to someone or something else. To expect anything more is losing the essence of what volunteering is. Please take this as suggestions to help you if getting letter is something you see as fair and plausible.
Do volunteer work you actually enjoy
Volunteering should be fun. You should be doing something you enjoy and feel at least a little bit passionate about. Doing something you care about makes you appealing as someone to work with and it makes you someone others can share their passion with. More than that though, it makes it an experience you can relate to a gives new perspective you may not get otherwise. Don’t just volunteer for perks, do it because you want to. I understand not every opportunity is ideal and that there’s certain…expectations about it, but if you don’t like the idea of building a tiny house on your school’s campus don’t volunteer for habitat for humanity because you feel like you have to. Do something that means something to you.
Do research before you start
There are a plethora of places to get volunteer hours, so it can be hard to figure out what’s legit. The things you are looking for are the program coordinator, the people who interact the most with the volunteers, and the mission statement. These are all preliminary moves to know who can give you guidance during your volunteer activities. When you are at the location for a fair amount of time and have foraged some relationships then you can start scoping out who you think would make a good letter writer. For example, you are in a clinic, a doctor or administrators are good choices. If you volunteer for youth programs, the coordinators are your best option.
A little birdie told me…
Keep one ear open about what the agency does in regards to letters of recommendation. Some places are known for just giving them out, but others almost seem to have hidden requirements before you can even ask. Things like this are you need to work at the site for at least 4 months, or you have to acquire X skill first. Ask around and listen to other volunteers, but be wary of rumors and exaggerated stories. This of course can hurt just as much as they can help.
Longevity is key
This is both a point for asking for a letter and something that is highly appreciated on applications. Being a volunteer for a substantial amount of time at one locale makes it easier to obtain a letter, sure, but also admission committees for grad/professional schools love to see that you have a commitment to something (it doesn’t specially need to be volunteering though, its just that sort of thing they like to see). Your potential letter writers like to a commitment to their passion too.
Don’t act like you deserve a letter for being there
It’s fine if you want to know about getting a letter from a place. Asking other volunteers and maybe even group leaders about letters and such is okay, but you really shouldn’t be jabbering about how great it would to be to have a letter from there or how everyone gets one when you’re still new to a specific volunteer group. You’re there to work, not to take advantage of someone. There is no such thing as a true guarantee and acting like you don’t need to earn anything is a good way to be an annoyance, rather than an asset. The last thing you want to do if offend anyone because it might look like you are only participating to reap the benefits. Later on after you have established some type of meaningful relationship, go for it. Ask about it. But don’t get cocky.
Be personable, be outgoing, show appreciation
I had a friend who did volunteer work with elephants for close to two years. When she approached the head coordinator for a letter she said “Who are you? I’m not writing a letter if I have no idea who you are.” And that was that. My friend would go to the site, do the work and leave. She never truly interacted with anyone besides her friends and never made an effort to make a reputation for herself. Obviously a good reputation is what you want, but you need to make an effort to know the people who are putting in the heavy work where you’re volunteering. Connections aren’t given, they’re earned.
In contrast to a professor, asking for a letter of rec from a place you volunteer should be done in person. These people have made time specifically to volunteer so hopefully they should be able to spare a few minutes to speak to you as you are one of their volunteers. There are certain situations where an email is totally acceptable to use as well, but you need to be the judge of that. Being a volunteer is partially about being able to cooperate with others, so directly asking, I feel, is good in this case because it shows you are fully there and the organization isn’t an after-thought.
Keep volunteering even after you get the letter
You should be volunteering in a place you like, like I said before. If you need to stop because of something, that’s alright. But if you can keep going, don’t stop! Getting a letter should not have been a goal, just a bonus. Keep up the good work are doing, and enjoy it.