What most people get wrong about volunteering through work

To experience real fulfillment, it's important to evaluate opportunities before jumping on board.

AARON HURST: So, a lot of people looking to be more fulfilled in their lives and work look to volunteering, doing service out in the community, as a way to do that. And it is a terrific way to do it. I want to share a little advice with you, though, about how to approach that, given the work I've done with tens of thousands of people and with leading companies around the world building corporate volunteer programs because I think most people get volunteering wrong. It can't truly be a supplement for getting fulfillment at work. A lot of companies, a lot of individuals, say, look, I'm not fulfilled at work. I'll volunteer and get that need met outside of work. And this is really the wrong approach because we spend the majority of our time at work.

And we've seen our research. If you're not fulfilled in work, you're not going to be fulfilled in your life overall. So the first step I recommend is before you jump into volunteering, think about what could you be doing today to make your current work more fulfilling? How could you be boosting your fulfillment? And part of that might be thinking about, how could I volunteer internally? How could I help with sustainability? How can I help mentor people who are younger than I am in the organization? How could I help do the work that's meaningful to me inside the organization? Because that's actually going to be much more gratifying for you most of the time than doing volunteer work.

That said, it's still incredibly valuable to do work in the community. But there's so many different ways to volunteer. And a lot of people who are new to volunteering just sort of jump on whatever they hear in a company email, what they see a company doing, instead of really being thoughtful about what is it that matters to them and what's going to be a fulfilling volunteer experience for them.

There's a number of dimensions to volunteering that I just want to go through to help you think through what might be the right fit for you at this time. One of the most important and challenging parts about volunteering is making the time to volunteer. So as you're thinking about volunteering, really think about how much time do you have and what kind of time is that? And this is both a question of what time during the day or during the week can you do it? It's how much time? And is that time that you can do from your desk at work, or is this time where you're actually able to go out and be in the community? This is a really important variable because it really narrows what you can do in terms of volunteering.

The second piece, which really I recommend, you know, thinking about somewhat in contrast to the first piece around how much time do you have, is really about what do you want to get out of the volunteering? Because a lot of times when you just think about how much time you have, you're doing that based on the assumption that you're going to get a certain value out of volunteering. But if you actually think about all the different ways volunteering can help you, you may find you have more time than you thought. So what are the things you want to get out of volunteering? What are the relationships that you want to build? And that could be with existing co-workers. It could be people in your field. It could be with people in the community. What are the relationships you want to build?

And those might be to help your career. They might be to be more connected to your community. What is the impact that you actually want to make? What would make you feel at the end of a volunteering assignment that you actually made an impact versus what would really leave you frustrated or feeling like I just skimmed the surface and didn't do something meaningful? And then, finally, you know, really, how do I want to grow? One of the main opportunities in volunteering is growth, taking you outside of your comfort zone, doing something you don't do everyday, meeting new people, new settings. How can you grow through that environment?

So if you think about all the different ways you can benefit from volunteering, you might start re-evaluating how much time you want to spend on volunteering. The next variable is really about the organization that you want to volunteer through. So there's thousands of nonprofit organizations providing so many different volunteer opportunities being able to work for an organization where you feel like maybe you could build a long-term relationship with them. Maybe you start off volunteering one way. But over time, you become more and more involved. And you're actually committing and setting down roots in an organization. What kind of culture would you want them to have? What kind of values would you want them to have? How could you, from their website and reading up on them, learn about them, to say, is this a place that actually I'd want to work? Because that's a great test. If you wouldn't actually want to work there, it may not be the right fit for you as an individual and to really think about this as getting to know an organization, not just for the surgical in or out.

There are, in volunteering, so many different ways to volunteer, from direct service, which is about helping individuals being on the front line, you can be a mentor, working in a soup kitchen, cleaning up a park, a sort of front line, direct service. Then there's pro bono and skill-based volunteering, where you use your professional skills to help nonprofits that don't have access to the marketing, the tech, the HR, that they would need otherwise, which really values your time, and your expertise, and helps you grow in that way.

And then there's more governance-level work, joining boards, helping organizations at that governance level. And then, finally, there's really work as an advocate, where you're starting to almost move into that political realm, where you're starting to advocate for issues or for leaders out in the community that you see as issues and organizations you want to get behind and do something bigger.

So this is another part of thinking about volunteering is, where do you want to show up on that spectrum? Which of those is going to be satisfying for you? For a lot of people, serving on a board is incredibly fulfilling. And for others, it's the worst form of torture on the planet. If you don't sort of have that self-awareness going into it, you're very likely to have a bad experience and then writing off volunteering altogether, not realizing that that would be like writing off all work altogether having only done one job.

  • When looking for greater fulfillment in life, people often look to volunteer opportunities offered through work.
  • Giving back to the community is valuable work. But to find the right volunteer fit, it's important to think about how much time you have, the experience you want, and the growth you're looking for.
  • To get the most fulfillment out of your volunteer experience, focus on the organization. If you wouldn't want to work there, it might not be the right fit for you.


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