Becoming a member of a service organization not only creates opportunities to join others in making a difference in your community but can offer abundant personal benefits. Choosing from the high number and wide variety of service organizations in existence presents a challenge that requires giving careful thought to which organization might meet your needs. Making the right choice also necessitates hands-on, in-person activity.
Expand Your Definition
Look beyond the term “service organization.” Service organizations can include civic leagues, professional and employee associations, guilds and social welfare organizations. Consider groups that organize around service, but also look at those that organize around a distinct membership -- such as professional associations or student organizations -- and include a service component. Your book club can be a service organization that collects books for literacy programs. Members of your nursing association can conduct health screening projects. This more inclusive idea of the service organization allows you to zero in on a better fit.
Determine the level of commitment you can maintain in a service organization. Consider your employment status, age, health and physical abilities. Some organizations are very hands on, participating in service projects and working in communities with the people they serve. Others focus more on providing resources through fundraising and community awareness events. Decide whether you're available for regular meetings and other responsibilities of membership. Are you mostly interested in service? Or, is the social aspect of membership just as important to you? Also consider the cost of membership, such as dues, donations and transportation expenses.
Reputation and History
Widely recognized organizations like Kiwanis, Jaycees, Shriners Club and Lions Club have long, distinguished histories, clearly stated values and missions, chapters throughout the country and national leadership for resources and oversight. Consider starting a new chapter of a national organization if there isn't one in your community or if you see a need for a new chapter. You might join a service organization because of your family’s involvement. For example, you can continue your mother's legacy as a Junior League member or join your siblings in membership at a fraternal organization.
Social Issue, Skills and Interests
Choose the social issue or population you care most about. Service organizations focus on every issue imaginable, including the environment, hunger, education, literacy, technology, children, families and workforce development. Some organizations choose a different focus area each year. Your chosen organization might focus on veterans, allowing you to choose an area like housing or employment. Your knowledge of horticulture makes you invaluable in a service organization that focuses on community gardens. Look for flexibility so you can serve in the area that best matches your skills and interest.
Research your service organization choice to make sure the group is right for you. A good reputation nationally does not always transfer to the local chapter, and learning about the reputation of a smaller organization with less oversight might require more work. Look over the group’s website, attend a meeting, ask questions and search the Internet for media attention about events or accomplishments. Ratings and reports provided by charity tracking services, such as BBB Wise Giving Alliance or CharityNavigator, can provide limited information about an organization’s credibility.
Gail Sessoms, a grant writer and nonprofit consultant, writes about nonprofit, small business and personal finance issues. She volunteers as a court-appointed child advocate, has a background in social services and writes about issues important to families. Sessoms holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in liberal studies.