Animal shelters are often in need of both volunteers and donations.

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5 of the Best Ways to Volunteer This Holiday Season

At this time of year, some organizations are swamped with helping hands, while others are in desperate need of assistance.

Undoubtedly, this time of year is when many people give back to their community. But before you show up at your local homeless shelter with a soup ladle in hand, keep in mind that many food banks, soup kitchens and other food-based charities have already filled their volunteer shifts for Thanksgiving and the weekends leading up to Christmas. But just because you can’t dish out a plateful of turkey and mashed potatoes doesn’t mean that there aren’t other deserving organizations in need of your help. Here are some groups that would appreciate an extra hand:

1
Clothing-Based Charities

As temperatures drop, everyone needs an extra layer to keep warm. One of the easiest ways to help those in need is to donate used coats to the Warm Coats Warm Hearts Drive sponsored by Burlington Coat Factory and “Good Morning America.” Donations go to local families, and you’ll get 10 percent off the purchase of a new coat to replace the one you no longer wear. The best part is that coats are distributed as they are collected instead of being held until the end of the drive. So the sooner you donate, the sooner you’ll help someone stay toasty.

If you don’t have a coat to donate, give pajamas instead. The Pajama Program is a national nonprofit that collects and distributes warm sleepwear to children in the foster system who are hoping to be adopted. Not only can you donate new PJs, but you can also do volunteer work for this organization, which provides plenty of opportunities— from hosting your own pajama and book drive to helping at reading centers. Check the website to get involved in your local chapter or learn how to start one in your area.

2
Educational Organizations

Schools might be getting ready to go on winter break, but that doesn’t mean their students don’t still require assistance. College-bound high school students are especially in need of support over the next few months. “This time of year is crunch time for our students — working on college applications and essays in addition to enjoying the holidays,” says Brian Dever, Mid-Atlantic regional director of Let’s Get Ready, an organization that helps low-income high school students with SAT prep, admissions counseling and more. You can get involved by joining in their “office hours” to help students with their applications and essays. If there isn’t a chapter in your area, contact your local school district or public library to see if they have similar mentoring programs.

If you’re looking to make a financial gift, browse projects on DonorsChoose.org, a site where teachers request funds or materials to help with specific classroom projects. Imagine how wonderful it will be for students to come back to school after winter break to learn that they will be going on a field trip or receiving a set of classroom iPads for more interactive learning.

3
Online Volunteer Groups

The digital age makes it easier than ever to give back to those in need. The website Volunteer Match provides an extensive list of organizations that need virtual help. And not to worry if you don’t speak HTML — there are opportunities for everyone. For instance, some organizations need help writing newsletters or posting to social media accounts, while others need assistance with online research. Whatever your skill set, you’ll be able to find an opportunity that fits.

4
Your Friends and Neighbors

There are many volunteer opportunities in your own backyard. You probably don’t know all of your neighbors or which ones could use some assistance, but checking with your neighborhood association or local government can provide you with that information. Whether it’s a neighborhood clean-up project, or visiting elderly residents who live alone, local organizations can always use a helping hand.

If you prefer to donate money, try Hand Up, a website that allows donors to give financial assistance directly to the homeless. Think of it like DonorsChoose, but for individuals. Employees at a group of nonprofits help their members create donation pages on Hand Up’s site. Donors can then go on and donate directly to a specific person. The best part is, through updates on the site, you’ll be able to see how your donation affects that person’s life. Many of the requests are for help with transportation or education to help the member get back to work supporting their family.

5
Animal Assistance

Finally, don’t forget about your four-legged friends during the holiday season. Many animal shelters need help as well. First and foremost, shelters are always in need of extra food. (Yes, we know we said these volunteer opportunities would be non-food, but we’re giving puppy chow a pass.) You can also volunteer to spend time with furry friends by contacting a shelter in your area. If you don’t know where your local shelter is, check The Shelter Pet Project, which offers a comprehensive national list, along with information about how to find volunteer openings.

When you contact the shelter, ask if you need to complete a training course prior to volunteering. “Many people like to take advantage of time off over the holidays to come spend time with shelter pets,” says Julie Sonenberg, administrative manager of the Volunteer Program at the ASPCA Adoption Center in New York City. “Some shelters may also have a need for fill-in support due to staffing constraints during the holidays. Check with your local shelter to see what their needs are.”