How to volunteer for charity work and make a sustainable impact

    Article by Zaytoen Domingo

    Zaytoen Domingo

    Posted: March 4, 2020

    Charity means making an impact in someone’s life by assisting them with a need. But what about the next day? Or the next week? Do you know how to volunteer for charity work in a way that will make a bigger impact?

    An example of an act of charity is to donate a meal to people who might not have any food. That’s one meal where some people won’t have to go hungry. 

    Donating or volunteering for charity to assist with an immediate need can be helpful, but volunteering to be part of an impact that will last longer is even better. 

    Before we talk about this longer-lasting impact, let’s learn more about the word charity.

    What we talk about when we talk about charity


    Charity is an act of goodwill offered voluntarily. This can be any form of assistance that the person performing the act of charity chooses, such as donating money or food.

    But since the person doing the act of charity chooses how they want to assist, it’s possible that the person or community receiving assistance might have different needs. 

    Imagine everyone donated food to a community that really needed clothes? That’s why it’s important to know the community’s needs first. It will ensure that the impact you make is valuable and necessary.

    To meet a community’s needs, it’s a good idea to include them in the decision-making process. 

    Creating spaces for people to communicate what their needs are and what help they want from an external source, such as volunteers, will also encourage a sense of autonomy and avoid dependence. 

    Dependence means that the community is in constant need of external assistance.

    The best way to volunteer is to move from dependence-based programs to sustainable programs. Doing this also allows the individual or community to continue to improve their own lives, long after you are gone. 

    Let’s talk about making impact sustainable.

    The best way to volunteer is to make a sustainable impact

    1) Dependency


    Charity work is done to meet an immediate need. We’ve spoken about the example of offering a hungry person a meal.

    Sustainable impact includes joining a person or community as they strive towards long-term and permanent development. 

    For example, if a community identifies the need for a sustainable food source, and you offer a community assistance with farming and agriculture, it will allow them to produce their own food. This way, the assistance will last longer than just one meal.

    Work done in the form of once-off donations or charity makes a community entirely dependent on external aid. For example, a person who has no money and few skills will always need donations if they aren’t empowered to get beyond this point. 

    Sustainable impact works towards independence through collaborative work and building capacity. For example, a jobless person works with organisations and volunteers to learn valuable skills that will increase their employability.

    2) Clear objectives


    Assistance through charity work can be spontaneous. For example, donations can be made at any time and communities don’t know when the next donation will come. 

    But sustainable assistance is work done with strategies, planning and goal-setting. This helps communities and organisations to work towards specific goals, to track progress, and to be aware of what work needs to be done. 

    Some organisations work with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs) to track and specify their impact. This helps to ensure that development happens and lasts.

    3) Responsible exit strategies


    Volunteers doing short-term charity work may arrive in a community at any time and leave at any time.

    But when you offer sustainable assistance, the collaborative work done with communities is outlined with specific, measurable objectives, including the end date of the project. This is called an exit strategy.

    The benefits of an exit strategy include reaching goals within a specific time frame, to ensure progress. And, a community being aware of the end date of a project is empowered to remain independent and to prepare for the external participants to leave eventually. 

    Another advantage of exit strategies is the motivation it gives communities to actively learn the skills needed to sustain themselves. It also empowers communities to take responsibility for their own development.

    Exit strategies might be implemented through responsible withdrawal from daily operations. But this will only take place  once communities are able to continue work on their own. This means that assistance won’t suddenly be removed from communities without notice. 

    4) Human empowerment


    Human empowerment is a principle that governs the way that people work together to enable one another to become independent. This type of work should protect the dignity of all people involved.

    A way to protect dignity is to allow people to make decisions for themselves. For example, when offering someone help, it is better to ask them how you can help first.

    This way, you can avoid coming across as intrusive, or appearing as though you know better. 

    One way to achieve human empowerment is through education. Access to higher education equips people with valuable skills that will increase their employability. 

    Assisting people to build capacity will generate income and help communities to use their resources more efficiently. This is an important know-how for communities to increase their economic welfare, monitor their consumption habits and make their resources last longer



    Another way to encourage human empowerment is through working together as partners. Through working together, you ensure that no single participant makes decisions exclusively. 

    This also ensures that all decisions made are agreed upon and fair for all people and volunteers involved. Equal relationships are established by working together. 

    The community will feel equally responsible for the work done. This level of responsibility will encourage people to work independently after volunteers leave. 

    Another advantage is that communities will be able to learn from volunteers, and volunteers can learn from communities’ needs as well. This will help communication, understanding and support of one another during projects. 

    Doing charity work can be a great way to help, but if you really want to make an impact, become a volunteer on a program that includes the community.

    You can do more than charity. Make a sustainable impact by volunteering.

    Zaytoen Domingo is an intern at the GVI Writing Academy. The Writing Academy is a skills-development program that pairs development editors with budding travel writers. Learn more about the program here.

    By Zaytoen Domingo

    Zaytoen Domingo is a content writer and editor based in Cape Town, South Africa. She is currently enrolled in the Masters program in English at the University of the Western Cape. After graduating with an Honours Degree in English and Creative Writing, Zaytoen completed a skills-development program for writers and became an alum of the GVI Writing Academy.