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Expert Advice on Picking the Perfect Volunteer Opportunities

Young Professionals Connection Expert Advice

Ever heard of  “Iowa Nice”? Well, it’s alive and well in Greater Des Moines (DSM). We’re blessed to have a community where accessibility to leadership isn’t an obstacle. Our leaders are always eager to help others, and that’s what makes Des Moines so fantastic. But do you ever wonder why they do this? What makes them so motivated to give up their free time to help others?

Well, you’re in luck! We asked three local community and philanthropic leaders just that. We wanted to pick their brains about why they volunteer, and all of them were more than happy to help out!

1. What motivates you to volunteer?

Jay Byers

Jay Byers, CEO, Greater Des Moines Partnership: One of the keys to success in Greater Des Moines is that our business and civic leaders are eager to volunteer and give their time to make Central Iowa a better place. I know that by volunteering I can do my part to make a real difference in our community and contribute to our region’s best-in-class status.  It also is important for me to give back to organizations that have helped my family and career.


Kristi KnousKristi Knous, President, Community Foundation of Greater Des Moines: I’ve always had an inner-call to give back.  Growing up, we volunteered as a family in our small hometown — painting the fire hydrants, hanging flags on Main Street for the holidays, and organizing a bike ride to raise money for our elementary school.  I passed that experience and the joy of giving onto my children and watched them organize their own fundraisers for their favorite charities. 

One day, while I was winding through Downtown Des Moines (DSM) to pick up my daughter from volunteering at a Science Center Camp, I couldn’t help but feel a little proud.  She decided to spend one entire week of her summer vacation helping kids learn about dinosaurs and outer space.  While she didn’t solve world hunger or find a cure for a disease, that week she was doing what she could, volunteering her time and talents in a way that was meaningful to her and to the campers she served.  

This experience reminded me that we could all find moments to give back to our community.  Whether it’s donating clothing to a family in need, serving meals together as a family or supporting our local arts and cultural community, all of these actions — no matter how small — do make a difference.

Sunni Swarbrick, Young Professional: There are quite a few things that motivate me to volunteer, but my primary motivation to volunteer stems from my passion to make an impact within the communities that I serve by giving my time, talents and treasures. Community philanthropy is something that I had the privilege of learning about in junior high and has continued to hold a very large place in my heart ever since.

2. How do your personal and professional goals fit into selecting an opportunity?

Kristi Knous: It’s interesting because I find my volunteer passions have changed over time.  Perhaps that’s because through my job as President of the Community Foundation of Greater Des Moines, I have the opportunity to learn about critical needs in our community.  So as I learn of emerging issues or needs, I tend to channel my volunteer energy there.  Lately, I’m finding more time to volunteer with my church.  I find that the volunteer experience is most rewarding when it aligns with my passions.  It gives me energy and is so rewarding!

Sunni Swarbrick: My personal passion and interest for the cause or impact being made through a specific opportunity really helps drive my decision to get involved with an organization or opportunity. While there are truly so many wonderful organizations within our great community that are making an astounding impact every day, my personal passions include working with at risk youth, working with special needs kids/youth, mentoring, community development and female leadership/empowerment.

When it comes to my professional goals, I seek opportunities that align with the company or organization that I am representing. I also always look for new opportunities where I can learn and grow within my philanthropic efforts and ways that I can educate those around me about the importance and value of being engaged/involved within your community. I love being able to connect those around me with an organization, opportunity or initiative in the community that aligns them with their personal passions.

Jay Byers: As CEO of the Partnership, I am engaged in a wide range of volunteer activities that are designed to advance our region and the overall goals of our organization.  I also am involved with a number of statewide, national, and international chamber and economic development organizations that focus on sharing best practices and advancing our industry.  Additionally, I serve on boards of non-profits that have played an influential role in my personal and career development and that have assisted my family in a meaningful way.

3. What are some tips for getting involved with an organization’s board, and what’s the expected time commitment/level of engagement?

Sunni Swarbrick: I would say that this definitely varies among organizations. When learning more about a specific organization and making the decision to get involved, I would suggest really taking the time to evaluate your personal passions and see where/how the specific organization you are looking at fits in with your passions.

Additionally, take the time to ask questions about the full scope of involvement and expectations as a volunteer – what is the expected time commitment each week, month, etc.? How often are meetings being held and how might they overlap with your work schedule and schedule outside of the workday?

While there truly is great value in immersing oneself into multiple opportunities at once, I think it is so important to get involved with one or two organizations, efforts or causes that align with your passions.  When getting to know an organization, I think the best way to get involved is by starting with the occasional volunteer event, then working towards involvement on a committee level if that is of interest, and then working towards a larger leadership position/board position. Allow yourself to take the time to get to know the organization on all levels, so when you are the one leading an event, committee or board, you are able to bring your absolute best in helping to further the organization’s mission and goals.

Jay Byers: There are a wide range of excellent organizations to get involved with in Des Moines, most of which are very welcoming to young professionals and new, innovative ideas.  The first important step is to get to know the organization. Research who they are and what they stand for.  More importantly, get involved.  When you can, volunteer before getting to the board level.  That will give you a better idea of whether it is an organization that you want to commit more time to, and it will make you visible and top of mind when it comes to being selected as a board member.

As far as time commitment and level of engagement, it really depends on the board.  The best way to evaluate is to talk with current board members and professional staff with the organization to understand what is expected of a board member. Some boards only require you to show up for an hour or two a month, and some boards are more working boards that really require you to roll up your sleeves and lead initiatives.  That being said, it is important to not overextend yourself.  Honor your commitments.  It is a much better strategy to pick a couple of organizations to get deeply engaged with than to pick a wide range of organizations and participate at a surface level.  Your goal should be to make an impact, not just to build your resume.

Kristi Knous: I would encourage finding a board position that aligns with your areas of interest or passion.  Ask good questions before accepting the position.  Make sure you understand what the expectations are for board members and make sure you have the time to commit to do the job well before saying yes.  You should expect a good orientation to the board and make sure you understand the organizations mission, vision and strategic goals.  Also, make sure you have a good understanding of the organizations financial position as well.  It all fits together to make a good volunteer experience for you and for the organization.

4. What’s your best piece of advice for YPs interested in getting more involved in the volunteer community?

Jay Byers: I think it is very important to align your volunteer activities with your personal passions.  If you truly believe in the mission, you will be a much more effective volunteer.  If you are still trying to pinpoint your professional and community priorities, volunteer with a number of different groups to figure out what really makes you tick.  A great way to do this is to get involved with the YPC Charitable Committee, which will help connect you to a number of nonprofit organizations that are looking for volunteers. 

I also encourage you to go through the Greater Des Moines Leadership Institute’s Community Connect program, which is designed to connect participants with experienced community leaders and help them connect their personal values and purpose to intentional action in the community.  Get yourself out there because there are so many ways to get involved to help make Des Moines even greater!

Kristi Knous: The United Way of Central Iowa has a wonderful volunteer connection tool on their website.  I would also encourage calling the organization’s executive director or volunteer coordinator to discuss your skillset and how you can best contribute to the organization. 

Additionally, I would encourage focus.  I see many YPs overcommit and reach a point of burn out.  Make commitments you know you can keep and do your best at it.  And don’t forget time for yourself. You will need it to recharge and continue growing.

Most importantly, THANK YOU, to our community’s YPs who give SO VERY MUCH to our community.  You are a key ingredient to the secret sauce that makes Des Moines so special!

Sunni Swarbrick: Always have balance. Define what balance means for you within your personal and professional passions and goals – and stay true to that. If you are able to check in with yourself and define what this means for you, your will succeed exponentially in the things that you commit yourself to. From personal experience, it is really easy to overcommit yourself and feel ‘stretched’ in what seems like a million different directions. If you aren’t allowing room for balance, then you aren’t setting yourself up to be the best version of yourself, which doesn’t provide the most quality effort from you to the communities that you are serving when giving of your time, talents and treasures. 

2015 Volunteer Fair

In an effort to shine light on the importance of volunteering and provide tips for finding the perfect volunteer opportunities for you, we compiled their responses below. After considering what they have to say, we hope you’ll join us for the 2015 YPC Volunteer Fair on September 24 from 5-8 p.m. at Drake University. We will have over 75 non-profits on site for the event with various volunteer opportunities and needs. Join us to explore the many opportunities in Des Moines, and leave the event having found the perfect opportunity for you.

Young Professionals Connection (YPC)

The Young Professionals Connection (YPC) promotes an environment that attracts and retains young professionals in Greater Des Moines (DSM). YPC connects young professionals to each other and to the community through social, civic, charitable and professional development endeavors. YPC members have unique opportunities to grow personally and professionally and forge lasting relationships. They engage, connect and form a foundation for their future in DSM. YPC is an initiative of the Greater Des Moines Partnership.