The Charity Balance

Strategic Volunteering

I am often asked for recommendations on how to balance professional and charity work.  I usually advise people that unless they have very few commitments and an abundance of resources, it’s best to practice strategic volunteering.  This typically means choosing organizations/causes which strategically align with your own personal or professional goals. Studies have shown that when the things we do connect with who we are, we become personally invested.

Regardless of which approach you take, try your best to choose a cause or interest you are passionate about. Afterall, it will require enthusiasm to meet the obligations related to fundraising and event appearances after you have finished a long day at work.  And if you are looking for work, the connections you make while volunteering could be a great boost to your job search efforts.

There are also emotional benefits to being charitable.  According to an article in Psychology Today, “Generosity is no longer the selfless act we have long thought it to be. Studies now show that one of the biggest benefactors of generosity is the person who is dishing it out.” In addition, “generosity reduces stress, supports one’s immune system and enhances one’s sense of purpose.”

For those of you who have yet to discover your passion, some great advice was offered by Bernie Leadbeater during a recent Linkedin group discussion sparked by the Fast Company article:  “Do Like Steve Jobs and Dont’ Follow Your Passion“.  Leadbeater’s advice is to “be passionate about what you do and it just might become your passion”. However you look at it, passion or enthusiasm is key to your charitable endeavors.  (The entire Linkedin thread is marvelous and will be covered in a separate blog post.)

Altruism vs. Self-Interest

Chris Jarvis wrote an article on why self-interested volunteers are better than those who operate exclusively from a space of altruism.  We have all showed up at charity events and wondered about the guests or volunteers (even worse) who did not show.

Altruism offers an anticipatory reward system.  You get credit for simply announcing your charitable intentions.  Self-interest actually requires you to follow-through on those intentions in order to receive your reward.  So, I agree with the author in that if I had to choose exclusively between two types of volunteers, I would choose those with skin in the game.

Which Strategy is Right for You?

Depending on what you are looking to get from your volunteer experience, your strategy for selecting your cause and level of involvement will vary.  Most people combine at least two in order to meet their goals.

  1. Leverage existing resources.  This is a great option if you are extremely busy but want to add value to more than one organization.  Choose an area which allows you to leverage your greatest assets.  This could include providing access to your professional network, personal resources, management tools, etc. For instance, I share the posts I write on this blog as part of my role with various organizations.
  2. Break into a new field.  If you are thinking of changing careers, taking on a volunteer role in that field is a safe way to test the waters and determine if this is truly something you want to do everyday.  If you choose to make the career switch, those new connections will come in handy!
  3. Develop a new skill-set or deeper expertise.  Depending on the amount of variety or growth opportunities you are seeking, you may choose a charity/association role which is completely different from your 9 to 5 or one that allows you to deepen your current expertise.
  4. Make targeted connections. If there’s a particular company or client you want to connect with, research the charities, causes and associations they support.  I know this sounds appalling but remember, it’s about connections, connections, connections.  Afterall, you will be adding value to the organization that you join.
  5. Build your personal brand.  Identify the organizations which will give you a platform to increase your visibility within the industry and allow you to display your expertise. Remember, you only have so much time, so focus on becoming selectively famous.

Do not over commit! You don’t want to be known as the unreliable person lacking in  follow-through on promises and commitments. The resulting bad press can easily flow over into your work world and damage your reputation.  Remember, when it comes to shared interests, networks are generally small and memories are long (so is the gossip).



  I am a strong believer in individual accountability and collective action.  When not reading, working or blogging, I’m supporting my favorite charities: Teen Living Programs where I am a volunteer and Executive Board member and YWCA Chicago where I am an Associate Board Member. I am passionate about causes related to supporting youth, women and families. Particularly in the areas of education, social services and housing. I can be reached at if you would like to know more about my charities or the blog.


Categories: Professional Development

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4 replies

  1. Thanks for yoru comment. Unfortunately, I learned that lesson recently when I had to pull back from an organization very dear to me just because I needed time to recharge. Although, I’m now more actively engaged, I’m concerned that theyare now unsure of my commitment.

  2. Great info Sherry. Piggybacking on your statement about over-committing, when volunteering it’s important to weight the amount of time you’re willing to invest versus that organizations expectations. There are tasks you should be willing to take on, with reasonable expectations of additional responsibilities that may arise as a result. One must take care not to overextend ones self to yours, or the organizations detriment.


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