Before you volunteer, make sure you’re actually helping: nine tips for ethical community engagement

Choosing to devote your time and energy to a community organization is commendable, but good intentions don’t always lead to positive impacts. Read these nine tips from Kay Jowers to learn how you can make the best contributions while volunteering — and how to cultivate meaningful relationships while you do it.

Jowers is the director of Just Environments, a partnership between the Kenan Institute for Ethics and the Nicholas Institute for Energy, Environment & Sustainability, which fosters equitable collaborations between scholars, students, and community members working on environmental justice issues.

Jowers credits these tips to the community partners who have generously guided and mentored her.

A group of diverse people bring together different colored puzzle pieces.
Jowers says that volunteers should bring their specific skill sets to support an organization as a whole. Illustration by Yunyi Dai.

1. First, build trust.

Trust is the foundation of every good relationship, but many communities have reasons not to trust outsiders, and many volunteers don’t work to establish trust before jumping in to help.

In the beginning stages of volunteering, Jowers says, focus on building trust with community members. Volunteers should ask themselves, “Am I acting in ways that align with this community’s values? Am I showing that I prioritize their interests? Am I fostering deep connections with the people around me?”

Be patient, be humble, and commit to demonstrating your own trustworthiness over time.

2. Follow their lead.

There are often disconnects between a volunteer’s priorities and a community’s actual needs. However urgent an issue may be, coming in with your number one priority doesn’t mean it will suddenly rise to the top of the community’s list.

Pushing your agenda forward is not an effective strategy. Instead, whenever possible, spend time within the community to gain a deeper understanding of their unique position and the challenges they face. This can take even longer if you are working in communities with people who have different social backgrounds than your own, or when communities have established restrictions on working with outsiders.

Follow the community’s lead and respect their boundaries. No matter how urgent your priority areas are, you can’t rush this process.

3. Get to know the community leadership.

Kay Jowers

When choosing community organizations to work with, take the time to get familiar with the local landscape. Try to figure out which organizations best represent the community’s interests.

This involves first looking at their leadership structure. Is the community represented on the board, or is it largely comprised of outsiders?

Also, take a look at organizations’ approaches to problem-solving — do they try to tackle social issues in isolation, or do they start by recognizing how multiple issues are linked together? Do they regularly engage with the community and seek their participation in the organization’s agenda-setting? How have they built in processes to make sure they stay accountable to the communities they serve?

For more insights on how “community-rooted organizations” operate, Jowers recommends this essay written with her collaborators and her Durham, N. C. community partner, Communities in Partnership.

4. Find a mentor.

Jowers suggests developing a trusted relationship with a “North Star,” a senior member of the organization or community who can — and is willing to — guide and mentor you. Be sure to acknowledge and appreciate the investment they make in your development and growth whenever you can.

5. Use the skills you already have. They don’t have to be exciting.

Nobody likes to think about taxes, but falling afoul of the IRS would spell disaster for any organization. Jowers describes how she uses her legal skillset to help organizations with attaining nonprofit status and maintaining tax exemptions.

“You are not the popular person in the room” when you ask people if they’ve filled out their forms and kept their minutes, she says. But even if your particular skillsets are not enthusiastically received, sometimes they’re the best way to move the community forward, and that may be recognized later.

“There are times when I have felt like the annoying pest in the room,” Jowers says, “but then I would show up at a potluck a couple of weeks later and be introduced by a community member as someone who was really helping them.”

6. Understand that in certain circumstances, you might be more of a hindrance than a help.

Because her program builds partnerships with communities, Jowers is often approached by enthusiastic college students, especially first-years, who want to get off campus and make a difference in the surrounding areas. But, she says, these communities are often oversaturated with volunteers and researchers, who, despite their good intentions, sometimes make community members feel like “labs for students.”

Students can also create a burden for these organizations; sometimes, simply because of their lack of expertise, they require supervision, which requires additional labor from staff who are already overstretched.

Rather than finding just any organization and deciding to work with them, Jowers urges students to be thoughtful and deliberate with their volunteer plans, taking time to identify an organization to work with and ensuring that they are truly in a position to help. Serving-learning courses or university programs can also help guide and structure community engagement for students.

7. Keep showing up.

Volunteering isn’t always convenient. Often, Jowers says, “relationship-building opportunities are not in the 9–5, Monday to Friday timeline,” but “being able to consistently show up over time is incredibly important.”

It takes a long time for people to start to see you as committed to their community. But if you stay consistently involved, you may find that the community begins to embrace you in turn.

8. Be okay with not seeing an immediate impact.

Sometimes you don’t know if you are making a positive impact. Sometimes you don’t even know if you are making any impact at all. Worse yet, your actions may have unintended consequences.

While creating positive change is the goal of every volunteer, these changes happen over such a long time frame that they are not always visible. Jowers says she tries to look for smaller indicators of progress, particularly in the relationships she’s building.

9. Build in moments of joy.

When you live or work in difficult circumstances, it’s important to find ways to experience joy. “It can be as simple as good food and breaking bread together,” Jowers says. These moments are necessary to sustain hard, emotionally taxing work.

For more from Jowers or more about volunteering best practices, watch the webinar “Lending a Better Hand: Making It Count,” hosted by the Duke Alumni Association.

Jason Kreinberg, Sarah Rogers, and Kay Jowers contributed to writing this post.