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Charity Without the Check

Insights & Ideas Team •  December 7, 2015 | Home and Family, Your Finances

When it comes to charitable giving, your first impulse may be to reach for the checkbook. After all, it’s a convenient way to support the causes you care about. But what if you can’t afford to dash off a check each time a charity comes calling, or you simply prefer to give another way?

The good news is that you don’t need deep pockets to make a significant difference. In fact, gifts of your expertise or time can be just as valuable—perhaps even more so. Plus, almost anyone can give this way, regardless of income, ability or age.

Mei Cobb, director of volunteer engagement at United Way Worldwide, provides a variety of motivations for donating time instead of cash. “The reasons are quite diverse, depending on age, socio-economic status, life stage, personal interests and passions,” she says. Some of the most popular include staying engaged, impacting a favorite cause and sharing a particular skill or experience.

Ed Sherman falls into the category of an engaged volunteer. Although he retired from the printing business long ago, the handy 84-year-old never stopped working. In fact, when he’s not crossing projects off his “honey-do” list at home, you’re likely to find him swinging a hammer at a Habitat for Humanity site.

Sherman signed on as a volunteer more than a decade ago so he could keep busy and give back to the community. “I’d rather wear out than rust out,” he’s fond of saying. And while he could easily write a check to support his charity of choice, he says that working alongside future homeowners to put a roof over their heads is far more gratifying.

Seniors like Sherman are a volunteer force to be reckoned with. In fact, a 2013 study by the Corporation for National & Community Service shows that one in three volunteers is age 55 or higher. This equates to more than 20 million senior volunteers donating three billion hours of service—a staggering $67 billion value.

While Sherman’s handyman skills are tailor made for building homes, they’re not the only talents charities value, says Cobb. “Soft skills, such as self-confidence, stress management, mentoring and others, are equally important.” In a global economy in which blue-collar jobs are becoming more automated, Cobb says the ability to coach and provide support is also a valuable skill. “Helping someone prepare a résumé or practice for interviews can make all the difference.”

Sometimes, however, just letting someone know you care is all that’s required to change a life. Just ask Rebecca Belding, a recently engaged physical therapist and Millennial who’s using technology to support a cause that’s close to her heart yet thousands of miles away.

Latin American Childcare is her charity of choice, and it allows Belding to use the Internet to exchange letters of encouragement and love with kids who need it most—impoverished South American children. “They smile so hard, you just can’t help smiling yourself,” she says. The experience has opened up new possibilities for Belding and her future husband, who may one day adopt a child from Peru—and bring a smile home for good.

Retirement and TaxesBelding is proof that an increasingly wired world is making it possible for volunteers to have an impact nearly anywhere. The Internet, social media, smart devices and other technologies have opened up a variety of new opportunities to make a difference, especially for cause-minded Millennials.

According to Cobb, Millennials not only look at volunteering through the lens of modern technology, they also see it as a way to facilitate professional and outward growth. “Wanting to combine career goals while making an impact is especially true for this generation,” she says.

Of course, some volunteers, like Jan Fitchen, do so for the simple pleasure of helping out and feeling good about it. The avid book reader and grandmother dedicates a few afternoons each week to serving as a cashier at her local library’s gift shop. “I like the interaction that you get that’s missing when you give money,” she says. “And it feels good to see people leave with something that may inspire a lifetime of reading.”

That heartwarming feeling may be more than just sentiment. In fact, a study conducted by the London School of Economics shows that the more you participate, the happier you’re likely to be. It compared people who volunteer with those who don’t and found that the odds of being “very happy” rose 7 percent among those volunteering monthly, 12 percent for those who volunteered every two to four weeks and 16 percent for those who volunteered weekly.

The conclusion? If you’re considering volunteering, odds are it might improve your outlook. You may also be happy to learn that finding an opportunity that suits your lifestyle is easier now more than ever, whether you have a specific cause in mind or need help choosing.

In fact, most charities allow you to start the volunteer process online, with websites like VolunteerMatch letting you browse several opportunities before pairing you with causes close to home. For those with hectic work schedules, United Way offers company-based opportunities that encourage teambuilding and camaraderie. It also provides families who treasure time together the chance to serve together and experience the joy that volunteering can bring to several generations.

No matter how you choose to give, however, a donation of your time or talent can have an impact far greater than a check. Or as Cobb puts it, “Volunteering can be contagious, and it benefits both the volunteer and the community. And that’s what’s really amazing about it.” 

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