Make no mistake about it — Chicagoans are selfless and service-minded people. These attitudes reflect the city’s overall sense of community, one built on embracing adversity and becoming stronger through it. Humanitarian efforts have had a long, fruitful history in the Windy City, ever since the founding there of Rotary International in 1905.

Whether you’re relocating to Chicago and want to find a cause close to your heart, or you’re just passing through and looking to lend a hand wherever it’s needed, let us help you get started.

Finding a Cause

Because of the sheer number of community projects in Chicago and greater Cook County, several services, programs, and events exist for the purpose of matching volunteers with organizations.

The annual Chicago Volunteer Expo connects attendees to projects of all scopes and sizes, from local initiatives to national and global organizations with branches that operate independently within the area. This year, a diverse group of opportunities included everything from a nonprofit organization teaching mindfulness to a mentoring program facilitated by attending Chicago Cubs games.  

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Alternatively, One Good Deed Chicago is an aggregator website for volunteer opportunities in the city, which allows you to search by field, skill set, and even the specific date you’d be willing to help.

For a light-hearted and unique program aimed at young professionals, check out Volunteering Untapped, which combines a monthly day of service with a subsequent social over a beer. If you’ve already devoted a lot of time to other endeavors, or if you happen to be in town on the second Saturday of the month, this is the perfect way to spend a few hours in the name of a good cause.

Causes We Like

If you have a certain skill set or already have ideas about the kind of work you’d like to do, we’ve compiled a list of specific organizations and organized them by field.

At-Risk Individuals

Several institutions throughout Chicago provide support, housing, and services to homeless individuals of all ages and backgrounds.

Through its shelters and outreach vehicles, the Night Ministry and its volunteers served 88,000 meals last year, providing the only meal in a day for about a quarter of the people it feeds. Its work administering free health assessments and HIV tests helps people get the care they need and might not otherwise receive.

Center on Halsted is a community center whose work focuses on the health and well-being of the community at large, with a specific focus on providing comprehensive services to the LGBTQ+ people of the Chicago area. The center offers everything from occupational therapy to vocational training, athletic activities, cooking classes, and support for smaller LGBTQ+ ally organizations. If you’re passionate about helping this group of people, your energy will be channeled in the right direction here.

Special Needs Individuals

Whether you prefer art or athletics as a vehicle for positive change, you can help foster these abilities in people who need a more accepting and enabling environment.

The ABLE (Artists Breaking Limits and Expectations) Ensemble is always looking for volunteer class facilitators to work alongside artists and engage with actors. With the encouragement of volunteers, this group of special needs performers and creators — formed less than 10 years ago — have participated in an international Shakespeare festival and released two independent feature films.

KEEN (Kids Enjoy Exercise Now) uses volunteer coaches to encourage fitness and well-being among young people with disabilities. You can coach kids in a variety of team and individual sports (list a few examples), and the time you devote will empower these children and bring comfort to their families, who know they’re receiving positive encouragement in a new way.

Outdoors

The Cook County area is home to a large number of green spaces, perhaps most notably its forest preserves. Maintaining these lands is of high priority to the community, and many organizations have stepped forward to care for them.

The North Branch Restoration Project focuses on protecting preserves and other public lands on its namesake section of the Chicago River, an ecologically diverse and vibrant area that has suffered from the effects of human action. If you have a few hours to offer on the weekend, you can help this organization clear invasive species and restore the landscape to its historic pristinity.

If you’re looking to establish a long-standing relationship with Chicago’s natural spaces, look for opportunities at the Forest Preserves of Cook County. They have work for every kind of nature enthusiast, from monitoring local wildlife species to running information sessions at their nature centers.

Animals

Chicago Animal Care and Control (CACC) is the local governmental branch that handles adoption and care for homeless animals, so volunteering here entails direct involvement in improving the lives of dogs and cats with nowhere else to go. Regardless of prior experience, you can socialize with animals and help them get adopted, and assist with vaccination and microchipping.

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A community organization called Friends of CACC assists Chicago Animal Care and Control, and the biggest help that you can provide is fostering! If you’ve just moved to the city and are looking for a furry friend, consider taking one in who really needs you.

Food

As with any major city, Chicago’s cost of living puts a strain on the immediate availability of food to many residents. Community organizations play a vital role in ensuring that as many Chicagoans as possible know where their next meal is coming from.

The Greater Chicago Food Depository delivers around 22,000 pounds of food each week to citizens who might otherwise go hungry, and volunteers assist in every step of the process. Anyone can repack bulk products into family and individual-sized portions, and those with language skills can act as personal shoppers throughout the city at the organization’s food trucks.

Volunteers at Lakeview Pantry perform similar duties, acting as the direct link between Chicagoans and the food they need. If you are unable to volunteer during the week, you can get to know more of the city on the pantry’s Home Delivery Saturdays, driving meals to Chicago’s elderly, disabled, and otherwise homebound residents.

We can all push ourselves to become more responsible global citizens when we travel, putting care back into the communities we encounter. We encourage you to look into diverse service opportunities and be aware that wherever you go, and for however long, there are worthy causes that could use your assistance.

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Joseph Ozment
Originally from Tennessee, Joseph Ozment is a writer and musician whose relationship with travel was shaped by growing up between the Southern U.S., Wales, and Hong Kong. So far, he's written for a newspaper in Russia, released a handful of home recordings, and started a novel (with plans for more, someday). When he's not busy running country roads or cheering on Liverpool FC, he's most likely making the next cup of coffee, or plans for the next trip.