Giving of Your Time Effectively

By Guy Ball,
OCSTC Senior Member

What if I told you that you could learn new skills on someone else’s dime, try out new ideas with a “client” who is just appreciative that you’re helping, and maybe even network yourself into a new job or a new direction in the process?

A Win-Win Situation

I won’t use the “dirty ‘V’ word” to taint this conversation. Let’s just call it helping out, paying it forward, maybe even good karma. Works for me. I’ve been loaning my technical writing skills for free to a few nonprofit organizations over the last couple of years and, besides helping them with needed skills, I’ve received more benefits than I ever expected. I’ve learned how to adapt to new situations better, “do more with less,” and to think like a guerilla fighter in the war on providing maximum content on a minimum budget.

And I’m not alone. Look a little closer at our OCSTC organization and you’ll see people who maintain dynamic web sites, produce award-winning newsletters, coordinate educational programs, and organize some pretty great events—all on their own time and with no expectation of financial return.

But let’s talk about sharing communication skills that are, at times, in short supply in the outside world. How many nonprofit groups could benefit from a few hours of your help in rewriting mission statements, program brochures, or event instruction materials for their staff?

Do you want to grow your skill set or offer yourself some variation from the same types of material you do day in/day out? How about creating a newsletter for your local community foundation or an informative web site for a new cancer patient support group? Are you interested in history or science? Small museums are always in need of informative little brochures to help their visitors. They don’t need to be fancy; just well written. How about doing something that impacts not just one or two, but hundreds or thousands of people?

A few years ago, tech writer Sam Poppas was simply helping out when the teacher at his son’s school asked him to speak at career day. Sam puts in his 40-plus hours a week and was content coming home and just dealing with family stuff, but he liked the idea of sharing his career with students. After his presentation, the principal asked if he could help out by writing a brief summary of a program the school was trying to get a grant for. Sam saw how disorganized they were and eventually took over the whole grant application, and the school won the funds. Sam commented that the feeling of elation over the success was unlike anything he’s felt at work for a long time. And without Sam’s help, they probably would not have gotten the grant.

“Writers have a unique and valuable talent that can advance the missions of local nonprofits. Your service is needed now more than ever to help address critical community issues,” noted Dan McQuaid, CEO and president of Volunteer Center Orange County, the county’s leading group connecting skilled volunteers with organizations that need assistance. “Volunteer Center can connect you to make a meaningful contribution that utilizes and expands your skills.”

What sort of projects might you be able to do? I’ve mentioned a few. Others I’ve personally helped with include editing, formatting, and publishing minibooks for a local historical society; collaborating with graphic designers on a downtown walking tour guide; developing a video-based oral history program; and, my favorite, writing a book on local history for a mainstream publisher.

Did I get paid for any of this? Outside of the miniscule book royalty, nope, nada, nothing. Did I learn new tools, have amazing control over projects, and feel like I impacted a whole bunch of people? You bet!

Sam said it well. “I picked up new skills that I was able to bring to my work environment, and it’s made me a bit more valuable. And should something unfortunate happen to my job, I can move into grant writing to bring in some extra income.” (He’s already written a few more.)

Pace Yourself

Let’s talk about the caveats, though. If you’ve volunteered for anything, you know there are too few people doing it, and you will be called on for other unplanned roles. This is a great way to get burnt out on a relationship with a particular group as your workload increases. Try very hard to limit the extra work you find yourself taking on to the tasks you really want to do. Try to suggest better ways to do existing things so that you’re creating a value (and interest) to your work—not just filling in a gap. This philosophy has kept me interested in continuing what I do (15 years with one group alone!)

Try hard not to impact your family time or the open time that’s very important for you. I tend to do a lot of my work late at night once my family has gone to bed. Learn about the group and their operation before you overwhelm them with your great new ideas. Often, an organization operates a certain way because of deeper reasons—or personalities. Your new idea might be wonderful, but it could also hurt them as everyone scrambles to accommodate something you’re trying to change. (On the other hand, you could also be that breath of fresh air they’ve needed for years!)

Don’t start a project you can’t finish. I’ve helped out several groups with web sites that the previous volunteer never completed. The group was left hanging to dry when the well-meaning webmaster got busy with something else in life. Don’t enter into a project if you can’t finish or gracefully complete it in a short time. (Remember, these people will talk—and they will either relate how you “walk on water” or left a big mess that no one could fix.)

Lastly, and possibly just as important. Remember, someday, you will not be there to help. For recurring projects, try to make your work as simple to follow as possible. Try not to work in complex tools if you can. I’ve created newsletters in Word and web sites in FrontPage—all because I knew that whoever was going to take it on would not be using InDesign or Dreamweaver. I purposely designed things that can be easily updated by a novice. (I made sure they had lots of copy/paste solutions.)

The Benefits You Reap

At the start of this article, I spoke of the new skills you would learn, the new ideas you could bring to an appreciative client, and the new career direction you might stumble upon. The more you do, the more you will gain back. It’s worked for so many of us willing to give it a try. It’s really not rocket science. It’s smartly using your talents to help others.

Payback? Well, how about smiling faces, a very grateful organization, a successful event or project where you had serious input, and a wonderful feeling deep in your gut. All without worrying about how it was going to look on your yearly review?

And maybe, just maybe, a payback of a better, smarter you as you head off into the crazy job market.

Guy Ball is a senior technical writer for EADS North America Defense Test and Services in Irvine, California. He’s volunteered his technical writing skills for over 20 years and swears it gave him skills that let him grow his career and discover new opportunities. He’s written a couple of books, created a few organizational web sites, developed an award-winning history coloring book for kids, and works on “too many” unpaid writing projects that keep him up, happily, late at night. His web site is

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