Like a good pair of blue jeans or a classic muscle car, volunteering never goes out of style. In fact, as this Nonprofit Times article explains, volunteerism is trending up in America. And as a PT, you’re uniquely poised to make a difference in a big way—at home or abroad. After all, you have the skills—and the power—to drastically change lives for the better. And that includes your own: as physical therapist and Sustainable Therapy and New Development (STAND) president Justin Dunaway recently told WebPT, “[Volunteering is] such a life-changing experience. It changes the way you think and feel about everything—in a good way.”
But searching for the perfect volunteer opportunity can be overwhelming—especially if you’re not sure exactly what you’re looking for. And even if you have a pretty good idea of the kind of volunteer gig you’re after, finding one that checks all of your boxes might seem darn near impossible. Either way, here are a few tips to help you fulfill your dream of becoming a volunteer PT:
1. Start planning sooner rather than later.
Choosing an opportunity is only a fraction of the battle. You also have to factor in time for completing and submitting your application (if the program you’ve chosen requires one), securing funding, and getting all of your logistical ducks in a row—especially if you have to travel. For example, some organizations will supply housing, while others might require you to find a place to stay and/or cover your own housing costs.
2. Pick an opportunity that aligns with your passions.
If you’re having trouble wading through the mire of volunteer programs, try focusing on the ones that speak most to you as an individual—personally or professionally. Ask yourself:
- Is there a particular part of the world to which you’re most interested in traveling?
- Is there a certain culture with which you’re fascinated?
- What type of therapy do you most enjoy providing?
- Which patient populations do you prefer to treat?
Once you answer these questions, you’ll be able to streamline your search. Looking for a list of available opportunities? Start by checking out this APTA page.
3. Make sure you’re ready to commit the necessary time and money.
Speaking of travel: if you opt to participate in a non-local volunteer program, you have to be ready to leave your homebase for a solid chunk of time. As Jennifer Werwie, DPT, explains in this CyberPT article, “For people working with Health Volunteers Overseas (HVO) for example, an assignment can be as short as 2 weeks or as long as 4 months or more.” And if the organization requires you to pay a fee or handle other costs—like travel or room and board—then it’s crucial you have a plan for covering those expenses. “The average cost of a one-month assignment with HVO is $2,300, from which a majority of the expense covers your plane ticket,” Werwie writes. As a side note, if the organization doesn’t supply an explanation of participant costs, it should throw up a serious red flag: “Know that all honest, forthright companies should be able to provide a break down of placement fee allocation,” Werwie cautions. “Often it will include a donation to the volunteer project, and then external costs such as marketing, product development, staff costs and overhead.”
4. Keep in mind that when it comes to raising funds, you’ve got options.
Volunteering can be expensive (although some of those expenses are tax-deductible). However, if you leave yourself enough time for fundraising, you might not have to dig too deep into your own pockets. Here are some suggestions Werwie highlights in her article:
- Spread the word about your volunteer endeavors via Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, and encourage those in your network to help make your efforts possible. Many times, those who are unable to volunteer themselves will happily donate to their friends’ and colleagues’ service efforts.
- Host a fundraising event like a bake sale, car wash, silent auction, or athletic contest. In addition to raising money, these efforts will fuel word-of-mouth discussion about—and possibly even media coverage of—your volunteer aspirations.
- Apply for funding through an outside organization, or give a presentation to a local service-oriented group, like Kiwanis or Rotary Club. Additionally, many churches and religious organizations set aside budgets for charitable activities, so if you’re involved in one of these groups, it could be a valuable source of support.
5. Remember that you don’t have to leave home to make a difference.
Not everyone is cut out for lengthy overseas expeditions, but luckily, there are plenty ways PTs can give back within their own communities. For example, the staff at Eisenhower Desert Orthopedic Center (EDOC) donate their time and expertise to help local high school athletes through the center’s School Sports Program. If you don’t have enough time to commit to an effort that great in scope, consider hosting a free screening event each month or setting aside a certain number of hours to provide pro bono services within your clinic.
6. Consider starting your own volunteer organization.
Maybe you’ve searched high and low for the perfect volunteer opportunity—and come up empty-handed. Maybe you already have some volunteer experience under your belt and you’ve developed some ideas of your own. Or maybe you’re at a point in your career where you’re ready to dedicate a lot more time to volunteer work. While founding a volunteer organization certainly is no small undertaking, it can be incredibly exciting and rewarding. Just ask Dunaway’s STAND colleague, Morgan Denny. “We really have our hearts in it,” she told WebPT. “We’re invested in Haiti. When you’re there, working with these people, they become part of your personal life—part of your family. So we feel like we’re helping our family.”
And no matter what volunteer activity you ultimately choose, that truly is the key—having your heart in it. Because while many experiences come and go like fleeting fads, volunteering is something you’ll carry with you forever. Have you ever served as a volunteer PT? What was it like? What advice do you have for your peers? Share your thoughts in the comment section below.