First in a two-part series

I get e-mails on a regular basis from people wanting to do volunteer or professional work with nonprofit and/or nongovernmental organizations here in Japan. Many find themselves at a loss about how to start. I am often asked three basic questions: How can I meet people at nonprofits helping those in need? Are there any events in English? And what types of organizations are out there?

Getting involved is not as difficult as you might expect. First you need to know what you want to do and what is out there. It requires an investment of time for research and networking but once you suss out the options available to you, I am sure most people can discover a group to work with.

Assessment — vision, skills, commitment

The first step is to decide to what issues you’ll commit yourself. There are groups doing almost everything, but what drives you? Then assess your skills and experience.

All the nonprofit NGO staff I talked to agreed this was the starting point. Jane Best from Refugees International Japan put it quite simply: “Choose a cause which you really believe in and establish how you can help best according to your skills and experience.”

Although some groups value sharing the same mission over all else, organizations need skilled volunteers. Ask yourself what you can offer an organization. Do you have skills and/or experience in PR, fundraising, Web site or database creation, grant proposal writing, financial management or event coordination?

“Having one strong skill — (even one that) you can earn money from” — can greatly help an organization, explained Kyoko Ode of the Hottokenai Cafe in Niigata Prefecture.

Be clear about your capacity to work in a Japanese environment and in Japanese. Fluency means you have many options. Those with communication skills have more possibilities than those without Japanese, who will be limited to the few groups with English-speaking staff.

“In general, Japanese language skills are important in order to both function in the office environment and talk to people . . . to gain true insight into the issues,” said Malaya Ileto from The International Movement Against all forms of Discrimination and Racism (IMADR). “Some places have bilingual staff — but it always helps to learn the local language, wherever you are.” Like anywhere else, and as in business, communication skills are a basic requirement.

Dom Pates from Peace Not War Japan told me they were always looking for people “prepared to bring their own ideas and initiatives to the project.” So be ready to put your words into action. Applying your PR skills and new ideas would be welcome whereas just telling an organization how they should run their outreach campaign will not be appreciated.

Evaluate your availability and commitment possibilities. How much time can you commit to and for how long? Are you interested in one specific event or making a long-term commitment? April Lawrence, who has worked with several groups, said it was important to “ensure you have the time to provide the help you are promising — do not overcommit yourself as you will let down both yourself and the organization.”

Do the research

Once you know what you want to do and what you can offer, do some research.

“Check out Web sites and see what you can learn about an organization before you call,” advised Marcie Kameta of People for Social Change (PSC). “Talk to as many people as you can about what you would specifically like to do, what causes you are interested in and what you can provide.”

The Foreign Executive Women’s Volunteering Directory ( www.fewjapan.com/volunteer/volunteering_directory.html ) and the Japan NGO Center for International Cooperation site ( www.janic.org/en/directoryofjapanesengos.html ) have information in English introducing a wide variety of groups. International centers are also a great resource for finding nonprofits or community organizations, according to Rachel Allen from PEPY (Protect the Earth, Protect Yourself), since smaller groups outside metropolitan areas are less likely to have Web sites.

Meet people — network and join events

Talk to people in person — don’t send out a bunch of e-mails. Find out directly what groups do and what their needs are. As Rachel Armstrong from Peace Boat told me, “If you really want to get involved, don’t just send off an e-mail . . . unfortunately nonprofits are often too understaffed to deal with inquiries effectively.”

Start by networking or attending events in which a variety of groups take part. For example, on Sept. 30 PSC is holding its 10th forum, with a panel discussion featuring a number of nonprofit NGOs working in the area of disaster prevention and relief, where participants will have time to speak directly with panelists about volunteering ( people-for-social-change-forum.blogspot.com/ ). You can also meet many people from different groups at the Global Festa, a two-day open house (Oct. 6-7) for NGOs and governmental organizations working in the field of international cooperation and development ( www.gfjapan.com/2007/english/web/01_open/index.html ). On Oct. 27-28, Yokohama sponsors a similar International Festa ( yokohama-festa.org/ ).

Go to volunteer orientation meetings and other events where groups will tell you about both what they do and the people involved.

“Get to know the organization by attending the events etc. before you deeply get involved,” advised Action against Child Exploitation’s (ACE) Yuka Iwatsuki. “See if the atmosphere of the office and the staff suits you.” This way you will find out more about their needs, if your skills are a match and if these are the people with whom you can work.

Event information in English is limited. There are many events listings online in Japanese, such as Yahoo Volunteer and NGO-Net, but for English try The Tokyo Community News ( tokyo-community-news.blogspot.com/ ). You can also visit two listings sites that include events from all over the world: Radicalendar ( www.radicalendar.org/ ) and Action Without Borders ( www.idealist.org/ ).

Find your match, make the commitment

Meet a number of people and then commit yourself. By meeting people and joining events, you will have better chance of developing a meaningful relationship with an organization and the staff that may be ongoing.

Sachi Nakajima from Resilience suggests looking “for an organization that respects your wishes and goals as an individual, so that one can have a mutually beneficial relationship with the organization.”

Be honest about what you can commit and then stick to it. Give whatever you do your all — most people work in nonprofits full-time for no pay. Interning and volunteering is a serious commitment, not just a hobby, so many groups require volunteers stick with a project for a minimum of six months or a year. In the words of Medecins du Monde Japon’s Prune Helfter, “Take it seriously! Do it as if you were being paid for it.”

To be a beneficial volunteer or intern, you need to understand organizational goals and needs, not just what our interests are. Over a recent lunch with JEN’s Yoko Asakawa, we discussed the problem of dealing with people “just interested in doing something” but who do not consider needs or commitment.

The coordination of volunteers’ interests and organizational needs is a serious issue. For example, some people just sent goods or showed up after the recent Niigata earthquake. Because you can go to X-town does not mean that is where you are needed. There are groups that do need your time and skills but understand there are needs and processes.

Anyone can get involved — just be realistic about what you can do and what the needs are. Despite challenges facing non-Japanese people wanting to do volunteer work here, there are many organizations in need of skilled supporters. Consider the search is part of the learning process — it need not be an intimidating process and this initial investment will be well worth it when you see what you can accomplish.

If you have the interest and time, there are many groups that need you.

Get involved

More events in autumn

* Friday, Sept. 14 — Nonprofit NGO Networking Luncheon (contact skillsbuild@gmail.com)

* Sunday, Sept. 16 — Amnesty International Japan fundraising party for Darfur in Ebisu, Tokyo (check www.aig78.org/ )

* Wednesday, Sept. 19 — IMADR Human rights seminar on minority women in Japan (in Tokyo) ( www.imadr.org/japan/event/index.html#entry145 )

* Thursday, Oct. 4 — “A Night for the Benefactors of Doctors of the World” (Tokyo) ( www.mdm.or.jp/ )

* Friday, Oct. 12 — Run for the Cure Foundation Pink Ball (Tokyo)

* Saturday, Oct. 20 — 2007 Run for the Cure/Walk for Life (www.runforthecure.org/ )

* Friday, Nov. 25 — Action against Child Exploitation 10th anniversary event (Tokyo). Volunteers also needed to help (contact info@acejapan.org)

Volunteer opportunities

* IMADR holds volunteer information sessions every month. Visit www.imadr.org/index.html for dates or contact them to set up a private meeting

* People for Social Change is looking for people to help with events, outreach, and Web site design. Contact skillsbuild@gmail.com

* Peace Boat is looking for teachers of Spanish and English (www.peaceboat.org/english/gvld/index.html)

* JEN Volunteer Project: Niigata farming assistance to help towns hurt by the earthquake. Contact info@jen-npo.org

* Run for the Cure Foundation needs volunteers to help with the Oct. 20 Run for the Cure/Walk for Life (www.runforthecure.org/ )

* Resilience would like to find people skilled in grant writing and database management (www.resilience.jp/index2.html)

* Get an event and volunteer listing once a month by writing to TokyoCommunityEvents-subscribe@yahoogroups.com

Sarajean Rossitto is a freelance nonprofit NGO consultant (sarajean-r.blogspot.com/) and PSC convener. Send comments on this issue and story ideas to: community@japantimes.co.jp

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