Sometimes, volunteer opportunities aren't exactly opportunities.
Sometimes, volunteer opportunities aren’t exactly opportunities. (Credit: Unsplash)

A common piece of cautionary advice that entrepreneurs hear is:

“Don’t give your work away.”

Sure, performing your service for free can devalue the work that you do, take you away from paying clients and cut into your bottom line.

There are cases, however, where certain events, causes or nonprofit organizations can bring tremendous value to your work, and let you make a difference in the lives of others. While I have experienced negative side effects from giving away my time and expertise, I have “failed forward” and learned how to donate my time and talents so that the experiences are extremely positive.

[Related: For This CEO, Volunteerism Is as Important as Her Work]

If you’re thinking about giving back, it’s critical to know what you are getting into first.

Here are five questions to ask yourself before saying yes:

1. Does the request, project or organization align with my values?

Whenever I consider doing free or in-kind work, I first ask myself, “Is this request/project/free time in line with my values?”

While I get paid to create custom talks for audiences, I sometimes volunteer time for talks. If the mission of the organization aligns with audiences who need my help and the travel time is minimal, I am happy to help. When I lived in California, I loved volunteering for Women’s Economic Ventures, a nonprofit that helps women learn critical business skills and assists many in securing funding to launch companies. It’s a well-run organization that does great work, and I was always happy to gift teaching time to help aspiring women entrepreneurs.

As a huge believer in the creative process, I also volunteer some of my time and expertise to support the arts. While I’m not an artist myself, I believe art changes the world (The earth without art is just “eh”, right!?) and we need artists to fuel this. I love serving on the board of AIR Serenbe, an incredible non-profit artist-in-residence program in Georgia. When I learned how the organization provides artists with critical creative time and space, I happily lent my marketing expertise years before I was a board member to help with one of their large fundraisers. The committee I work on is all volunteer and such an amazing group of women. I donate a ton of time, but I am happy to because I can personally see the outcome and have such respect for the team I collaborate with.

[Related: How to Seriously Make a Difference Through Your Work]

2. Can I give 100 percent to the project/request?

Before you ever say yes to a volunteer gig, make sure you actually have the time and energy to do the work. You may not be getting paid in dollars, but your reputation will take a serious hit if you say yes to something you don’t have time to deliver beautifully.

Giving 100 percent doesn’t mean you have to let your real job suffer. Rather, you should be able to manage both with a reasonable amount of ease. If that’s not the case, pause and re-examine what you realistically can contribute.

It’s ok to decline or offer an alternative that you can do that you would be able to do well instead.

3. I am doing this because I care about the project, not about getting exposure, correct?

Since the whole idea of giving back is about, well, giving, you should have a spirit of generosity about any project you sign on for. More often than not, work-in-kind projects will not get your name in lights, so going into something with an expectation of publicity or attracting clients or getting something back (other than warm fuzzies) will only lead to disappointment and possibly resentment.

But if you’ve vetted the project and know it aligns with your values, you’ll want to do the work for the sake of giving back. It won’t be a stretch to do your best job possible.

[Related: Creating a Company That Gives]

4. Have I established a clear set of expectations?

Once you’ve agreed to give your time or skills, you need to work with the organization to clearly lay out what you’ll do—and what you won’t do. Set and define clear roles, terms, and tasks, communicate expectations and make sure to put all of those in writing before you start any actual work. In this way, volunteer gigs are very much like a paid job.

Occasionally, a person or organization won’t take those expectations seriously. I once worked with a nonprofit leader who always wanted more even after I laid some very clear ground rules about what I could manage. It reached a point where I had to recognize my advice or contributions weren’t valued, and that this person was not respectful.

When things don’t work out, it’s ok to break away.

5. Will my donation leave things better?

As much as you might love the free work you are doing (running free events in your community, volunteering for a nonprofit, speaking, doing in-kind work, etc.) a time will come to leave a project even if your relationship hasn’t soured. Actually, this is just the nature of volunteer work. Most of us can’t, realistically, continue to do it year after year without burning out.

You can leave a legacy. If it’s time to part ways with a gig, you can do so gracefully by leaving something behind. That might be a playbook on how you’ve approached, say, marketing strategy, or a guidebook for the future person helping out. It could even be something as simple as a Google Drive folder with instructions and documentation. The point is to leave on good terms, which means giving something meaningful away as a parting gift.

It is so important to value your time and expertise. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t gift your talents to help causes and organizations that are meaningful.

Know your value and values, then voice them. May any giving back you do give you personal gratification!

Lorrie Thomas Ross, MA is a marketing expert on a mission to help more women brand, build and boost business to be happier, healthier and wealthier. Her agency, Web Marketing Therapy, is a full-service marketing agency that diagnoses, prescribes and guides healthy marketing solutions. Her Wild Web Women community supports women in launching and growing web-based businesses. She wrote the McGraw-Hill 36-Hour Course to Online Marketing and several (now Linkedin Learning) courses.