How to Help Others When You're Short on Time

family serving food in homeless shelter
Be selfless when you volunteer and it can add to your life. Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

No doubt about it, helping others feels good. But there are times in life when even the most giving among us feel like we don’t have one extra minute to spare. We may be saddled with careers or family responsibilities that make it nearly impossible to commit to intensive or ongoing volunteer gigs.

Good news: You don’t have to forego contributing to the world or your community because you’re stretched for time. There are plenty of one-time and bite-sized volunteer opportunities that take only minutes or a few hours to complete and don’t always require you to be on-site. Call it micro-volunteering. Here are 10 ways to make a meaningful difference when you can’t commit to big chunks of time or regular volunteer dates.

Try automatic giving. If you absolutely can’t spare one minute, consider giving opportunities that happen in the background as you go about your daily life. For instance, you might consider using a search engine like Goodsearch that donates a penny to charitable causes for every search you perform. Or shop online with a service like Giftfluence that automatically donates a percentage of sales from more than 1,000 major stores to charity.

Donate while shopping
One way to give back when you’re stretched for time is to shop online with a service that automatically donates a percentage of what you spend. Elaine Smith [public domain]/Flickr

Give passively. Most of us have snatches of time here and there that can be put to charitable use without too much effort. For instance, with a click of your mouse you can always donate money to a cause of your choice. Or you can offer supplies and used goods to churches, charities or charity-based thrift shops. Many of these groups (including Goodwill, Salvation Army, Habitat ReStores and Vietnam Veterans of America) even allow you to schedule a free home pickup so you don’t have to drive there yourself. Another passive giving opportunity — spread awareness about important causes or worthwhile charities to friends and acquaintances via email or social media.

Volunteer virtually. If you want to roll up your sleeves and contribute a bit more than money or used items, but still don’t have time to drive somewhere or you need to keep your schedule flexible, consider virtual volunteering. With just a computer, tablet or mobile phone, you can give hands-on, personalized help to others from the comfort of your living room, during your lunch break at work or even while you’re waiting in line at the bank. The good part about these opportunities is they allow you to use specialized skills you already have or ones you want to develop. Examples include translating documents to English for nonprofits, designing brochures for charities, flagging prohibited ivory items on Craigslist to stop elephant poaching, and helping YouTube video producers create better captions to help deaf and hard-of-hearing viewers. You can find plenty of digital volunteer opportunities at sites like and (a free service from the United Nations Volunteers program). You can also go directly to organizations seeking home-based volunteers, such as the Smithsonian Institution, which recruits history buffs to transcribe historical documents so they’re more accessible to the public;, which collaborates with bird enthusiasts to track bird populations and migration patterns; Be My Eyes, an app that lets sighted volunteers help visually impaired people around the world navigate their surroundings and perform visual tasks via a live video connection; or I Could Be, which recruits volunteers to mentor at-risk kids online.

bake sale
A once-a-year fundraising event, like a bake sale, is a good way to contribute when you don’t have time for an ongoing volunteer commitment. Tony Alter [CC BY 2.0]/Wikimedia Commons

Pick one yearly or seasonal giving opportunity. You don’t have to serve on the board of a local charity for three years or commit to once-a-week service projects in order to make a difference in your community. Many organizations — including libraries, schools, churches, sporting clubs, homeless shelters and historical societies — sponsor one-off events like holiday cookie sales, yearly service auctions or community bike rides that rely heavily on volunteers. Another way to give back without an ongoing time commitment is to help at annual local events, like a music festival, marathon, cultural happening or conference. For a short amount of service, you not only get the satisfaction of giving, but you also typically get free admission and plenty of fun networking opportunities.

Help out on an as-needed basis. Natural disasters and accidents seem to strike every day, meaning there is unfortunately no lack of short-term opportunities to help others in your local community and elsewhere around the world. For instance, you might give food and clothing to flood or fire victims or help with storm cleanup efforts. Another idea is to organize a 5K fundraiser or give blood. Connect with the Red Cross or other disaster relief groups to find spontaneous opportunities to reach out. Of course, you can also look closer to home for small ways to give back. Assist a neighbor in need by offering a home-cooked meal or a ride to the doctor.

paid time off to volunteer
Many companies give employees paid time off to volunteer, so they don’t have to take away from their personal lives. Ian Alexander [CC BY-SA 4.0]/Wikimedia Commons

You already earmark time for family, friends and other pursuits. Why not combine these activities with volunteering? Here are some ideas.

Use your employer’s volunteer incentives. Many companies offer employees paid time off to volunteer. Which means you can do good during the work day — and get paid — without needing to carve out time from your personal life. If your employer doesn’t offer volunteer incentives, petition top management to create a program.

Volunteer on vacation. Even the most time-crunched workaholics usually enjoy some R&R; during the year. Why not achieve two things simultaneously by infusing your getaway time with some altruism? Organizations like GlobeAware and GoEco offer short-term “voluntourism” opportunities to travel the world, including places like Vietnam, Peru, Romania, Indonesia and Ghana. You get plenty of time off to see spectacular sights and engage with local people in ways you wouldn’t during a regular “resort” vacation, all while helping to build new homes, plant crops, create clean water systems, teach English and care for rescued elephants.

Go social. Why not merge friend time with helping-out time? You and your buddies can take a volunteer vacation together (see previous tip) or try something closer to home, like helping out at a soup kitchen or walking shelter dogs together. Or if your friends aren’t interested, seek out giving activities that let you connect with new people. For instance, the Do Good Bus offers four-hour monthly community rides that give volunteers plenty of time to socialize while also helping local charitable organizations.

Get your family involved. Maybe you already feel guilty about not spending enough time with your kids. Being away even more — no matter how worthy the cause — seems out of the question. Fortunately, you don’t have to choose between family time and giving time. There are plenty of volunteer activities that busy parents can do with their kids, including planting trees, serving meals at a soup kitchen, raising a service dog or starting a community garden. Not only will you forge deeper bonds with your kids, but you also instill them with a sense compassion and community responsibility.

Team up with your pet. Believe it or not, you and your fur (or feather) baby can make the world a better place together. For example, you can visit a nursing home or participate in a fundraising walk. Pets can even donate blood. Which means you never have to leave your animal BFF behind again to offer a helping hand.

volunteer with your pet
There are numerous fun ways for you and your pet to become a do-good duo so you don’t have to give up time together. Marlies Kloet [CC BY-SA 3.0]/Wikimedia Commons