Better Business by Robb Hicken: Choose volunteer opportunities and organizations wisely

ROBB HICKEN, chief storyteller for the Better Business Bureau serving the Snake River RegionAugust 6, 2013 

Robb Hicken

Andrew, a Swahili interpreter, first came to the International Rescue Committee as an interpreter for a client who was enrolled in a naturalization class, says Julianne Donnelly Tzul, executive director at IRC in Boise.

“Andrew has excellent verbal English skills, but he couldn’t read and write,” she says. “We had volunteers who helped him along the way, and when he took the naturalization classes himself, he’d improved his writing and reading enough to pass.”

Donnelly Tzul gives credit to Andrew’s abilities, but says the volunteers’ dedication to the organization and trustworthiness drew him back to IRC to take the class.

“When a nonprofit is open about what it does and the benefits it provides, volunteers know they can trust that their time is well received,” she says. “We need people willing to work in a team to help.”

Andrew successfully passed the naturalization exam on his first attempt. He is now a U.S. citizen. He is one of 226 people helped by IRC this year, and one of 66 to apply for citizenship.

Opportunities to serve abound in the Treasure Valley. Most nonprofit organizations accept volunteer service with as much enthusiasm as monetary donations. Volunteering your time to a nonprofit organization or charitable cause can be personally rewarding and just as important as a cash contribution.

But, before you give up your nights and weekends, it is wise to consider several factors so your time is wisely given.

First, become familiar with the organization’s activities. Don’t rely simply on the title of a group as a key to getting involved. Ask for written information about the organization's programs, finances and governance. Make certain you are comfortable with its fundraising methods and expenditure of funds.

Depending on the circumstances, volunteering can involve a variety of activities. Not all volunteer activities involve directly assisting those in need. Many charities need help with fundraising and administrative work. If you are assisting with fundraising, you may want to verify that the organization is appropriately registered with the secretary of state. Nonprofits also must file a Form 990 with the IRS. That document should be available for public viewing. You can also check at bbb.org to see the nonprofit’s background and structure.

Some volunteering requires a commitment from the individual in terms of completing a special training program or devoting a scheduled number of hours each week. The value of your time in volunteering is not deductible as a charitable donation on your federal income tax. However, some out-of-pocket expenses, such as transportation costs, are deductible if directly related to your volunteer activities and you have records to substantiate the value.

Some organizations can make use of special expertise. Retired business executives, attorneys and health professionals are in high demand.

If you are asked to assist with door-to-door appeals, be aware of the fiscal responsibilities involved. For example, for security and record-keeping purposes, it is best not to collect cash. Ask for a check made out to the full official name of the organization, and promptly and securely deliver the collected donations.

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rhicken@boise.bbb.org, 947-2115

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