While in middle school, I participated in an education program that taught us the importance of giving back. We learned early on that it wasn’t just a nice thing to do, but rather our civic responsibility.
The idea stuck, but it would be years into my nonprofit career before I understood that there are so many ways to get involved. I’d also encounter a few misconceptions along the way.
If you’re curious about getting started, here are some myths you may find on the road to doing good.
1. Giving back is too hard.
Sure, you’ve got to put some effort when you’re trying to make society a better place! Just remember that the amount of effort is entirely up to you: whether you dedicate weekends to rebuilding homes in storm-ravaged neighborhoods, an hour per week as a mentor, or even 2 minutes submitting a donation to charity. The levels at which you give are totally within your control (and if you don’t know where to begin, it’s okay to start small.)
2. Giving back is real easy.
Objectively speaking, it’s easy to give time or money to a cause. However, if you want more out of the experience, go beyond that. Your “charity” is a reflection of the issues that you care about, a stance against the wrongs you want to right. This may seem like a heavier lens to peer through, but approaching it in this way gives more meaning to the time (or money) that you do put in.
Your understanding of social issues is likely to grow, and one day you’ll find yourself questioning how you can do more. That level of reflection is the cornerstone of true giving back. It is far from easy.
3. The only way to make a difference is by donating money.
Absolutely not! Money has a place in every effort, and it’s good to give what you can. But money is hardly enough to solve the equality, access and opportunity problems that we face. There are other non-financial resources that are just as important, such as time, creativity, and expertise.
Check out The Taproot Foundation, which connects pro bono consultants to nonprofit organizations for this exact reason!
4. Giving back isn’t my responsibility.
You may have hardships that make giving back too difficult right now. Or, maybe you reached your position in life with hardly any help from others and don’t think this applies. Why give back when no one gave to you? (If you’re reading this blog, I’m willing to bet the latter reason doesn’t apply).
Without judgment, I’ll say this; I give back because I believe it matters. If you’re in a place where you can’t give right now, that’s okay – take care of yourself and revisit it later. But if you have the means, try to re-evaluate this stance. Giving back isn’t a quid pro quo exchange; it’s a chance to show that you care what happens beyond your own world.
5. If you don’t work for a nonprofit, then you can’t give back.
Great news on this front: anyone can give back to their community! There are so many ways (i.e., joining a committee, training for a marathon, coordinating a coat drive) that if you’re committed, you are bound to find something that works. You may also find that charities want volunteers with skills that are relevant to your background, even if that background has nothing to do with nonprofit.
There’s only one caveat, and this is true no matter which sector you work in. To get the most from any volunteer experience, you should approach it with the right mindset. Bring your skills, confidence and enthusiasm! Also bring your humility, curiosity and a listening ear. Use the opportunity to not only act, but to learn more about the community you’re serving and why the issues exist. Good intentions are helpful, but informed intentions are powerful.
6. If you work for a nonprofit, then you’re already giving back.
Yes and no. There’s a dangerous assumption behind this myth, that goes something like this: why would anyone choose to work in a sector characterized by low pay and grueling conditions, if not to give back?
I’ve encountered this in subtle forms over the years, and it does a disservice to the sector. First, there are many reasons why someone might be at their organization – be it mission, work environment, or the lifestyle that it affords them. Also, not every nonprofit job is unworkable! Remember that low pay and crappy work conditions are the hallmarks of tough jobs in every sector. Finally, and most importantly, this idea assumes a limited scope of nonprofit work when the sector is massive and varied. Think social service agencies, universities, hospital networks, professional associations, private foundations and everything in between. (For an extensive list, here’s how the IRS likes to categorize them these days.) Many people working in nonprofit are doing great work, but for some, that’s not the primary reason why they’re there.
Don’t get me wrong – nonprofit work can be hard, and some of it does lend best to people with the heart to do it. But even then, working at a nonprofit doesn’t have to negate someone’s desire to give back in a personal capacity. In fact, having that separation can be grounding and gratifying.
It can feel overwhelming to try and figure out where to start giving back. Just remember that giving back is flexible, should feel manageable, and works best if it truly resonates with you.
What are some of the things that you’ve learned as a volunteer? Please let us know in the comments!