29/03/2016 3:02 PM AEDT | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST

Volunteering In Australia: What You Need To Know

Reuters Photographer / Reuters
Homeless men line-up for food at the St Vincent de Paul Society soup kitchen called the Mathew Talbot Hostel in Sydney May 3. The St Vincent de Paul Society said British backpackers, who regularly eat one-dollar meals at the soup kitchen which is even advertised in the 'cheap eats' section of some backpackers' travel guides, were stretching resources for the destitute to the limit. They added they expected the problem to get worse as tourists flock to the harbour-side city ahead of the Sydney Olympic Games from September 15.DG/PB

Ever thought your spare time could be put to better use? Or that you'd love to get involved in your local community in some way, but a) aren't cute/young enough to run a lemonade stand or b) don't have the hipster swag necessary to open a stall at the neighbourhood markets?

It could be that a volunteering gig is right up your alley, but the different categories, locations, time and skill requirements have you at a loss of where to start. Or you've made some tentative inquiries only to learn the organisation you were interested in has a waiting list (!) and are now unsure of the next steps.

So how to get started?

"Research shows most people are getting involved in volunteering through word of mouth, when friends or families invite someone along," CEO of Volunteering Australia Brett Williamson told The Huffington Post Australia.

"However, increasingly with technology, we are seeing growing evidence that people will go on an organisation's website and have a look for matching programs.

"Sites such as GoVolunteer provide a national platform where organistions can advertise volunteer positions and individuals can search by locality, interest and/or time commitments, and come up with some options. You can then follow up with the organisations and reach out to them.

"Alternatively, potential volunteers can post their CVs -- for want of a better word -- for organisations to look at."

In terms of choosing what sort of volunteering might be best for you, Williamson advises you treat it much like a job search.

"If you were looking for a paid job, you would try to match it with your interests, where you live, ease of transport, the time commitment requirement, all those sorts of things," Williamson said.

"It is the same with a volunteering opportunity. While it has to be something close to your heart, it also has to be convenient and something you are able to help out with."

As mentioned before, some would-be volunteers may have already expressed interest in a particular organisation only to be told there is already a waiting list. While this is not uncommon for some popular volunteering services, it certainly does not mean more Australian volunteers aren't in need.

"I suppose it’s a bit of a catch 22 in some cases. With something like a soup kitchen [a waiting list] is not uncommon," Williamson told HuffPost Australia.

"Because for an organisation to engage, recruit, manage and support their volunteers, it’s like supporting staff, it comes at a cost. It's all about workforce planning and efficiency.

"I think, overwhelmingly, organisations would love to take on more volunteers, and there are many organisations that are desperate to recruit volunteers, who don’t have a waiting list."

Williamson points out that, like anything, some organisations and services are more popular than others.

"These tend to be the sectors that engage with community service, education, environment and conservation and animal welfare," Williamson said. "These tend to be the preeminent ones people are most interested in," he said.

"The less popular sectors are the ones that deal with people with disabilities or disadvantaged communities. Things like alcohol and drug support, homelessness. These areas could certainly do with more support."

In terms of what volunteering actually looks like, Williamson says the definition has broadened considerably over the last decade and can even mean working from home.

"There's an increasing trend for people to get involved in other forms of volunteering rather than the traditional 'formal' volunteering which would see people volunteering through an organisation that provided a service -- so Meals on Wheels, for example," Williamson said.

"While we still have people doing that, we have also seen an increase in informal volunteering. So that could mean helping someone in your local community buy their groceries every week, or helping someone clean up their yard or take them shopping once in a while.

"It could be volunteering for big events such as fun runs, fundraisers or a sports community event.

"There's even virtual volunteering, where people can volunteer under their own terms and conditions, in their own time.

"So depending on the situation, that could involve developing websites, preparing business plans or doing some research for an organisation. It could be one hour a week or it could be done in a matter of three days.

"The challenge for volunteer organisations is to structure the functions or jobs they want done in such a way, not neccessarily so they demand people have to give up two days a week or whatever, but to make it work for them. It all has to do with smarter workforce planning and trying to offer work that matches with the volunteers needs and availability."

Aside from just generally feeling good about the fact you are giving back to society, Williamson says there are a number of personal benefits you can expect to take away from your volunteering experience.

"People can grow professional and personal skills, they can roadtest a particular career, or perhaps even improve on their language skills," Williamson said.

"The research is clear, there are vast benefits, and while it's primarily about giving back to the community, it's also about learning teamwork, improving patience, improving planning skills and social skills.

"Increasingly, the younger generation is also acknowledging that volunteering adds to their CV or their career. Not only are they giving back to the community, they are gaining valuable skills and experience."