Governance Q&A: Choosing your volunteering

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I’ve resolved to do more volunteering in my community. What’s the most ethical way to spend my limited time? Should I help my elderly neighbour, my professional association or a community charity?

I hope your choices are not mutually exclusive. There is no one “most ethical” form, as long as your volunteering helps change your community, or even one life, for the better.

People who have not done regular volunteering assume it will be a chore that takes time away from personal pleasures. Often, they find their volunteering gives them not only a great deal of satisfaction but also fun, friendship, new skills, exercise and more. I certainly didn’t need a gym membership when I was volunteering regularly with therapeutic riding sessions.

So what if you miss a few TV shows? If family time is the issue, others in your family might decide to get involved once they see how much you enjoy the volunteering. Or perhaps you want to take some continuing education classes. You might find the organization where you volunteer has orientations, workshops, first aid certifications and other low cost or free education. One person close to me was told she needed thirteen weeks of training before she could start hospice volunteering. Since this was an area that really interested her, her wonderful response was, “Great, free training!”

So perhaps your question could be re-framed deal with the right combination of volunteering for you, to have the impact you want. Let’s look at each type.


Throughout human history, our survival has depended on co-operation. People came together to build shelters, hunt animals, heal the sick, protect children, celebrate the coming of spring and winter, share gathered food and many other forms of collective action for mutual benefit. We should not pass up such opportunities to build community, even if we don’t know the names of everyone we meet. Make a stranger smile; help a relative live independently as long as possible; give a neighbour a ride to a medical appointment; take time when a troubled friend needs to talk.

Maybe someday we’ll need help, so pay if forward when you can. It will make you happy. And often such minor acts of kindness can collectively reduce our own tax bill! Quality of life in our community depends on most people finding time to help each other. Sometimes, informal volunteering takes a great deal of our time and energy for a while. Anyone who has assisted their parents as they became frail and sick has lived through that. Usually, though, informal helping leaves time for formal volunteering too.


Most good professional, trade and industry organizations have a public benefit component to their efforts. Their work raises the standards and skills of those working in the field, which may mean better and safer services and products for their clients. Often, their clients are individual consumers or customers. So such volunteering does benefit the community – sometimes a very large community such as your country.

A lot of this sort of volunteering is done by people late in their career or recently retired, to give back to the type of work that sustained them. Young people often get involved to further their careers through networking and skill-building. Experienced people realize others are looking to them for leadership because of their knowledge of the field, or because of their in-depth expertise of some important area of education or advocacy. Does any of that apply to you?

Consultants, who have more freedom to arrange their schedules to accommodate board and committee meetings, often make up a disproportionate number of the volunteers in their field.

Some employers allow paid time off work for volunteering in the industry or profession. A small number give time off or make other allowances for any volunteering.


Most people think first of charities when they consider volunteering, especially those already involved in service clubs and faith groups. Many also give back first to charities that have directly helped them or a family member, often with a specific disease or disability, or to community groups where they are already active. Help coach amateur athletes, join a choir or take care of kittens at a shelter. Once you are a regular and have asked a few good questions, someone will soon approach you to join a committee too. If they don’t and you are interested in making the organization run more effectively, offer.

Again, the quality of life in our communities heavily depends on the services and programs provided by organizations. Informal volunteering just doesn’t fill all the gaps. Want a community orchestra? A natural area preserved? Programs to help street youth get off the streets? A community health clinic? A baseball league for your child? A credit union? Opportunities for more people to make art? The list goes on and on. Hundreds of thousands of volunteers are needed at any one time to keep worthwhile local, regional and national nonprofits and cooperatives serving our future generations and us. We need all reasonable people to take part in such volunteering during much of their lives.

How to choose

For anything beyond shovelling the neighbour’s driveway after a snowfall, think carefully about what changes you most want to make in the world. Your volunteer work will be part of your legacy, just like your donations and bequests. Ask yourself:

  • What is my passion?
  • What skills and knowledge can I bring to that passion?
  • Where can I use those skills and knowledge best?
  • What restrictions do I have to consider (e.g., transportation, child care, classes)?

Your local volunteer centre can help you find good choices. You can do research on the Internet too. Look for organizations have visions, values and missions that match your hopes, and that are effective, transparent and accountable.

I hope you find the right opportunities to give and get joy through volunteering.


Since 1992, Jane Garthson has dedicated her consulting and training business to creating better futures for our communities and organizations through values-based leadership. She is a respected international voice on governance, strategic thinking and ethics. Jane can be reached at

Because nonprofit organizations are formed to do good does not mean they are always good in their own practices. Send us your ethical questions dealing with volunteers, staff, clients, donors, funders, sponsors, and more. Please identify yourself and your organization so we know the questions come from within the sector. No identifying information will appear in this column.

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Disclaimer: This article is for information purposes only. It is not intended to be legal advice. You should not act or abstain from acting based upon such information without first consulting a legal professional.

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