While in middle school, I participated in an education program for inner city youth 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 the many ways that there are 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 hard.
Sure, some effort is required if 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 easy.
Objectively speaking (and personal circumstances aside), it’s easy to give time or money to a cause. However, if you want more out of the experience, then go beyond that. Think of your investment as a reflection of the issues that cause you concern, a stance against the wrongs you want to right. This is a heavier lens to peer through, but approaching it in this way gives more meaning to the time that you do put in.
Your understanding of those issues is also likely to grow, and one day you’ll find yourself questioning where there’s room to do more. This level of reflection, which is the cornerstone of true giving back, 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 less costly resources that are just as important, such as time, creativity, and expertise.
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?
Without judgment, I’ll say this; I give back because I believe that 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, but 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.
There is one key to this though, which is true no matter where you work. To get the most from any volunteer experience, you should approach it with the right mindset. Bring your skills, confidence and enthusiasm! Also remember to 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 issue exists. Good intentions are helpful, but informed intentions are powerful.
6. If you work for a nonprofit, then you’re already giving back.
This idea only becomes a problem if it derives from the stereotype that equates nonprofit work to martyrdom. The assumption goes 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 dangerous disservice to the sector. 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 actually 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.)
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.