Your money or your time?

During the holiday season, we often start thinking about helping people in need and giving back to our communities. This impulse sparks a common dilemma: Do I volunteer my time, or donate money to the charity I care about? There are pros and cons to both actions – for the individual as well as the organization. I’ll attempt to illuminate both choices to help you make an informed decision.

I started volunteering when I was 14 years old, organizing activities at an assisted living facility in my Indiana hometown. I continued to volunteer on a regular basis for the next 8 years, until I graduated from college and went to work the social sector for the following 12 years. During my career I worked for several nonprofits – from a grassroots, volunteer-run hunger relief non-profit, to a large, international UN agency – and everywhere in between. I have felt and witnessed the power of volunteering, as well as the power of monetary giving.

Here’s what I learned:

To volunteer your time and expertise can be powerful, as your results are tangible and immediate. You get to see how your work is transformed into something greater than yourself, and you get a perspective on the issue that you may not have had before.

For some charities, their business model relies on volunteer time. Early in my career, I worked for The Campus Kitchens Project, a hunger relief nonprofit that relies on volunteer sweat equity. Without volunteers, the program doesn’t run. Period. Same for Operation Helping Hands, a post-Hurricane Katrina disaster recovery program. Without the thousands of volunteers, many homes in New Orleans would not have been rebuilt.

Seems great, right? And yet, there are still many reasons why volunteering is not always the best option for you, or for the organization.

After years of volunteering and then working for nonprofits, I will often recommend donating money over volunteering.

Two main reasons why:

  1. Many charities can’t actually support volunteers, which requires investment in volunteer training and supervision, as well as money. For charities that do not have volunteerism baked into their business model, it doesn’t make financial sense to create systems to support it.
  2. Charities who rely on volunteers typically need predictable, recurring volunteers to reap the benefit of “donated” time. One time volunteer opportunities typically benefit the volunteer more than they do the charity.

Additionally, nonprofit staff are skilled workers. They understand not only the public sector but also the population they are serving. While volunteers add value in specific situations, many charities would rather have money for their skilled staff to implement programs that directly benefit the community.

Many would-be donors think that if they give money, they’ll miss out on the emotional “reward” you get from volunteering. However, with recurring donations you get to know the charity over time – and they get to know you. Charities are more likely stay in touch frequently with recurring donors, updating you on programs and progress. Recurring donations also provide predictable income, which in itself is valuable to the health of the charity.

Finally, you might be at a certain point in your life where you do not have the extra time to volunteer, but don’t let that stop you from staying connected to charities and helping your community.

The bottom line: If your charity has a business model where they rely on volunteers and you have the time to volunteer on a regular basis, it’s a great option. If either of those things aren’t true, give money on a recurring schedule. And remember – no amount is too small! The charities, the workers, and the population they serve will benefit enormously!


image credit Campus Kitchens