using your skills: volunteering and time banking

One of the most effective ways of making a difference to your community is to volunteer your skills.  Lots of non-profit organizations are in need of writers  and editors, graphic designers, sysadmins, web developers, grant writers, researchers, statisticians, legal professionals, accountants, teachers, carpenters, cooks, and many other specialists.  If you want to help use your specific skills for good, where should you look for opportunities?

Idealist and VolunteerMatch are two large sites that allow you to search for volunteer opportunities (as well as jobs and internships, in the case of Idealist).  SmartVolunteer is a more recent and less well-known site, but it was set up specifically to aid professionals in all sorts of fields at finding opportunities to donate their skills to non-profits.  All three sites have the ability to search for volunteer opportunities within a given area.  All sites allow you to specify your skills (and/or list your skills and interests as keywords) to refine your search, as well as the types of causes you’re most interested in volunteering for.  SmartVolunteer is clearly aimed at individual, skilled professionals.  It allows you to specify a certain amount of information about the kind of time commitment you’re interested in making, and whether you want to work virtually, on-site, or both.  SmartVolunteer also specifies which of the non-profits have requirements that urgently need filling, and whether each of the listings is for an on-going or one-time job.  VolunteerMatch and Idealist are aimed at broader audiences, and include better search options if you’re managing a group of volunteers, or you’re looking for volunteer opportunities for kids or volunteers of other specific age groups.

Another option for sharing your skills with your community is time banking.  In time banking, you list any skills that you have that you’re willing to share with others in your area.  For each hour you spend helping others out, you earn a virtual dollar to be exchanged for an hour of services from someone else (the Cambridge, MA time bank lists some examples of skills you might donate or request).  Thus time banking economically works out to a form of barter, where all donations are valued based on the amount of time put in.  But proponents of time banking see it as a form of social change — giving value to kinds of work that may otherwise be undervalued (like spending time at home with children), increasing community interaction, and causing people to engage in a system of reciprocal giving rather than splitting people into the needy and the well-off.

I like the idea of time banking and may join the nearest one (for me that’s Oakland — you can check the directory or start your own if none exists nearby).  But I’m curious how well this method really effects social change.  In order for it to be most effective, it seems like people of lots of different socioeconomic statuses would need to be participating.  And I’m guessing mostly people who are pretty well off are going to run across the concept of time banking.  That’s just a hunch, though.  It’ll be interesting to find out more if I get any statistics about participant demographics from the Oakland group.  In the meantime, I’d love to hear about others’ experiences with time banking; I’ve only recently been introduced to the concept.

Edit: Katherine Ellin, organizer of the Cambridge, MA time bank supplied further information on time banks and different ways that she’s observed them serving different members of the community:

[P]eople who join generally fall into 3 groups (with overlap).  One group are people who would like to volunteer.  For these folks, time banking is really “volunteering for the 21st century.”  It’s volunteering that doesn’t create a one up-one down power dynamic.  It’s volunteering that allows recipients to receive with dignity.  It’s volunteering that allows the recipients to also be givers.  The second group of members are those folks who need the kind of assistance that family members, neighbors or good friends might provide.  For example, a ride to the airport, a ride to a medical appointment, help putting up pictures, help moving the furniture, help organizing your stuff, help with laundry, cooking, snow shoveling, leaf raking, etc.  These folks include the “aging in place” group, those people who would like to stay in their homes as they age rather than move into assisted living situations, people with chronic illness or disabilities, individuals who live alone, may be new to the area and don’t know many people to ask for assistance.  The third group are people who would like to try out new things for free.  They might be interested in trying body work or jewelry making or calligraphy, but they wouldn’t necessarily pay for it.  It’s the “luxuries” that they add to their lives by being in the Time Trade Circle.  For all three groups, meeting new people and creating a sense of community is an important component as well.

As for socioeconomic diversity, it’s hard for me to know.  We have people who seem to be financially well-off, as well as members who live in public housing.  Age-wise, there is a lot of diversity.  Our members range in age from 20’s to 90’s.

That is more diverse of a population than I’d expected, and I can see the appeal even more based on this.  I could see how trading services and helping each other out would do a lot more to build community and build sustainable patterns (e.g., allow elderly to continue to live in their homes instead of in assisted living) than would having volunteers who come and go.  And I like the idea of not building a sense of inequality into the exchange, as volunteering might.


  1. Aaron Said,

    January 4, 2010 @ 11:11 am

    Yeah, time banking seems less like volunteering and more like… buying local, maybe? Even if buying local takes up more of my time than the alternative, and contributes to a social good, I wouldn’t call it “giving my time”. If time banking causes change, it seems as though it would be through building community, changing people’s relationship to money, leading people rely less on labor that’s been encapsulated into the price of goods made elsewhere, etc.

    But I suppose that if a time bank did span social classes, it would also have the effect of making a well-off person’s time worth the same amount as someone poor, or who in any case has more excess time than money.

  2. lauren Said,

    January 5, 2010 @ 1:33 pm

    Aaron: I talked to the Cambridge time bank organizer about this and got some additional information about the diversity of time bankers, and also some of the reasons that some people prefer it to volunteering. Check out the edit at the end of the post for more.