THE BLOG

The Limits of Volunteer Service

07/12/2010 11:50 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Volunteer service is a way for individuals to create a tangible and visible difference in our communities and in the world. However, there are certain limits to what we can do and the impact that we can have. This is not a message that people in the nonprofit and public sectors want to hear, and dedicated volunteers might find this to be a bitter pill to swallow. Please don't get me wrong. We're all designed to use our talents and natural gifts to serve others and improve the world we live in. But upon candid reflection, I think all individuals who have donated their time, skills, and money will agree there are definite boundaries to our abilities to shape the world. Here are the three most significant limits on the impact of volunteer service:

1. Service cannot solve all world problems.

Although it's possible to make a measurable impact that helps solve a global problem, it is not realistically feasible to solve all of the challenges the world faces. For example, take a look at this article about volunteering to clean up the gulf coast oil spill. What's worse is when our well-intended service efforts unintentionally backfire and cause additional social problems. We cannot save the world.

2. Service cannot transform our lives eternally.

One of the great things about service is that it can provide a sense of comfort when you see that your contributions have made a positive effect on society. This is gratifying. However, any 'life-changing effect' is short-lived. As both a dedicated volunteer and a devout Christian, I know from experience that internal and eternal transformation comes through religious faith, not through volunteer service. True contentment and inner peace are not gained by giving to others.

3. Service does not make you a 'good' person.

As someone who has been engaged in service and even written a book about it, I wish that I could say service has made me a 'good' person, but it has not. Serving in the food bank or at a nursing home each week does not erase the misdeeds that we commit to others in our lives. The same is true for people with careers in nonprofit organizations. The hurt and damage that we inevitably do throughout our relationships with others is not wiped away by service and good deeds.

So the bottom line is that there are limits to what we can do to change the world through volunteering. But is it still worthwhile to serve others? Yes! All of us have been given a unique set of natural skills to help others. We were designed to cultivate these abilities, to take pride in them, be thankful for them, and to use them to serve. Doing this can create a tangible and visible impact on the world. Yet, the key is to remember that we are only humans and that there are limitations to what we can do.