Guest post by Walter P. Little
“It is better to give than receive.”
“It is in giving that we receive.”
No doubt you’ve heard one or both of these expressions before. These sayings may seem trite, and yet, some of the best experiences I have enjoyed in this life have come from being generous and in the moment.
I do believe there is a correlation between generosity, opportunities, and overall good fortune. I believe this comes from the emotions evoked by and experienced as a result of generosity – feelings of connectedness, gratitude, happiness. These feelings improve one’s outlook in a positive way, which in turn makes one more receptive to positive opportunities that come their way.
In his book 8 Habits of Love, Ed Bacon tells a parable of generosity in the form of a comparison of the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea. Both are fed by the Jordan River, yet the Sea of Galilee is thriving, full of life, while the aptly-named Dead Sea is among the saltiest bodies of water on Earth and sustains essentially no life. The geographic difference between these two bodies of water is that the Jordan River flows both in and out of the Sea of Galilee, while it only flows into the Dead Sea. The metaphor is that we, like the Sea of Galilee, will thrive when we freely give away some of what we are given. Conversely, if we hoard everything we are given, toxicity is the inevitable result.
When I was growing up, while many of my peers were volunteering in the hopes of a stronger college application, none of the volunteering opportunities that came my way were as a means to an end. Here are two volunteering experiences that shaped and stayed with me.
The first was volunteering for the St. Francis Center for the homeless in downtown Denver. We served food and helped clean the place. It wasn’t hard but it was gratifying, and both during and after this experience I felt a peacefulness that I have come to know as connectedness.
The second was over a holiday season, we came across a Christmas tree with paper card ornaments, each one filled out with a foster child’s name, age, gender, and wish for a gift. My mother encouraged my brother and I to each select a card, and took us shopping to purchase the gift. I didn’t know the boy I chose, I didn’t know where he lived or what he was like, but while shopping for his present I felt like I was shopping for a friend. I imagined what it might be like to not have anything to look forward to at Christmastime, and it felt good to give this kid something to look forward to. It also made me appreciate what was under our Christmas tree that much more.
As an adult, I’ve spent a lot of time volunteering with several organizations. Sometimes, I leveraged skills I already had, but more often I was trying things I’d never done before. In all cases, the opportunities presented themselves and I went with them.
Practical Reasons to Volunteer
Beyond altruism, there are several reasons to volunteer:
1. Gain skills and experience in something new. This can be useful for a planned career change, for expanding your current career, for a hobby, for expanding your general confidence, for overcoming a fear, or for any other reason. Personally, through volunteering, I’ve gained or expanded expertise in financial accounting, grant writing, concert production, home building and remodeling, cold calling, public speaking, and more.
2. Meet new people and expand your network. I have connected with so many amazing people through working as a volunteer. Some of these connections have aided my career, many more have resulted in great friendships.
3. Increase connectedness with your community. Nonprofit organizations have a special connection with the pulse of the community. Volunteering with and being part of community organizations, especially Tia Chucha’s Centro Cultural and All Saints Church Pasadena, was crucial in making Los Angeles feel more like home than my hometown of Denver.
4. Broaden your perspective. Proximity with people of different circumstances and backgrounds from yours is vital experience, especially if you’re interested in social and economic causes. It is crucial to have firsthand experience with the issues you are interested in helping to solve , as it will broaden your perspective and strengthen your resolve. Activist-attorney Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative places proximity as a foundational pillar of creating effective social change along with hopefulness and bravery.
5. Tax benefits.
Charitable contributions to registered 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations are tax deductible. In some cases, in-kind donations and volunteer work can be itemized and included as a deduction when filing your taxes. Consult with a tax professional for more information.
You may have noticed that “giving back” was not included as a reason to volunteer. This phrase has always made me a little uneasy. Rabbi Marvin Gross of Union Station Homeless Services recently gave a speech in which he expressed a similar sentiment. While he lauded the nobility of those wanting to share their success with those less fortunate, he added that “…I feel folks should give to the community regardless of how much they’ve received. Giving should be an early, original, primary action itself, not one that follows only after a period of receiving.”
Answers to common questions about volunteer work.
Q: What sort of help is generally needed?
Assume this to be the case for virtually every nonprofit organization – they are all trying to carry out their mission on limited resources. As such, areas of assistance fall into a few categories:
- Helping with the mission directly – Building houses with Habitat for Humanity, feeding the homeless at the local homeless services agency, teaching an art class at an art center, etc.
- Help with administrative needs – Office tasks, logistics, maintenance, and custodial, just like a for-profit business, volunteer organizations have work behind the scenes that also needs to get done.
- Outreach – Helping build and maintain awareness of the organization and its work, both by hitting the pavement and online.
- Advocacy – Working with policymakers and other influential parties to ensure that the organization’s mission is seen as relevant and important.
- Fundraising – Raising money and in-kind donations through direct appeals (mailers, cold calls, staffing a donation table, donor cultivation, galas/benefit events, crowdfunding), and institutional funding (letters of inquiry, grant applications, grant reporting)
Your skills and experience should fall into one or more of these categories. Or, as mentioned earlier, take volunteering as an opportunity to develop a new skillset and try something new .
Q: How can I get started?
Reflect on the causes you care about, or, as a friend of mine likes to say, reflect on “what makes your heart beat fast.” Examples of these include social justice, civil rights, economic empowerment, environmental stewardship, housing, education, arts and culture, animal welfare, and many more. Select the one cause that speaks to you the most, then find out what is happening in your area. Many organizations list the types of volunteers they are looking for on their website, better still is to reach out to the organization by attending an event or just dropping by. Engage with the staff and other volunteers, get to know them and let them get to know you and your interest.
There are opportunities all around, and getting started can be as simple as offering to help clean up after an event or helping someone in need. See the links listed below for opportunities in your country.
Q: What if I don’t have a lot of spare time?
Organizations that depend on volunteers benefit from any level of commitment you are able to give. It is of benefit to both you and the organization if you have fairly clearly and realistically defined and communicated how much time you are able to contribute, and whether it will be regular or sporadic — this will help determine what sorts of areas and tasks make sense. If the organization is putting on an event or program that you are interested in attending anyway, this is a great opportunity to offer some help.
It is very important to balance your desire to contribute with the other activities and priorities in your life, especially the need to take care of yourself. If you find yourself overcommitted, be upfront and honest about this – especially if you have committed to something significant and/or mission-critical and there is a risk you may not be able to deliver on this commitment.
If time is a constraint, yet you still want to help the organization, consider pledging a recurring donation.
Q: What if I don’t have experience?
Be clear and honest when approaching the organization. There is plenty of work that does not require specific experience, and there will also be some opportunities to learn as you go. A positive attitude, openness, and a willingness to learn and work are a great start.
Where to Find Volunteering Opportunities
- The US: https: VolunteerMatch, https://www.usa.gov/volunteer, http://www.nationalservice.gov/serve-your-community/benefits-volunteering, Laundry Love: www.laundrylove.org, Americorps: www.americorps.gov, Habitat for Humanity: www.habitat.org
- Canada: https://volunteer.ca/
- The UK: https://www.ncvo.org.uk/ncvo-volunteering
- The EU: http://europa.eu/youreurope/citizens/education/volunteering/index_en.htm
- Australia: http://www.volunteeringaustralia.org/
If you’re from a different country or have spent time in one, please let us know so we can add it to the list.
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