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“I Needed to Make a Living Before I Could Make a Difference”

A street sign that says 'Give Back;.

In honor of National Volunteer Week we’re talking about how volunteering helps your career in addition to helping your community.

Yesterday we talked about how to find a great volunteer opportunity. However, it can be hard find the time and energy to volunteer when you have other pressing concerns. Read how one entrepreneur engineered a way to give back.


Ever since I can remember, I thought I would be a lawyer. Throughout college and after graduation, I spent my time preparing for law school. Then I spent the first three years of my professional life working for attorneys. Finally, I was accepted to the law school of my choice. But I did not attend.

Instead, I would become—in fits and starts—an entrepreneur.

My plans to add “Esquire” to my name began unraveling when I was laid off from my law firm job. The experience left a bad taste in my mouth and made me reconsider if this really was the career I wanted. At the same time a friend of mine, having witnessed me exploring a handful of business ventures as hobbies, convinced me to start a real business with her. We decided to help entrepreneurs and nonprofit founders navigate the government registration process. We called our venture Harbor Compliance.

I loved the work from the start, but quickly realized that starting a business does not leave time for much else. Many people call entrepreneurship a 24-hour-a-day job, and in many ways I’ve come to agree. Even after working ungodly long hours, if something comes up and it’s my day off, all of a sudden it’s no longer my day off.

Not enough time to give back

One particular activity I always enjoyed that I could see slipping away as my business grew was volunteering. Growing up, I played music in my church; in high school I joined week-long mission trips to rebuild homes; and in college I organized philanthropy events. But after becoming an entrepreneur, I found I had less time, less energy, and less financial means to volunteer. My savings were sapped and I had little income. All the money we made we reinvested in the business.

I wanted to get back to volunteering, but I was conflicted: I loved the feeling of satisfaction from helping others, but at the same time, I needed to help myself financially. What was an unlikely entrepreneur to do?

Eventually, I engineered a way to start volunteering again. Here are the top lessons I learned in the process:

First, you have to help yourself

I realized I was not going to be able to help anyone else if I was stressed about money every waking hour. In the first year, I didn’t know if we were going to make it or if I would end up homeless. I recognized that I needed to make a living before I could make a difference. So I focused on taking care of myself and getting what I needed at a minimum to survive. I became more frugal than I ever thought possible to lower my income needs. (One example: I didn’t buy any new clothes for two years. My partner, who sews, mended tears and holes so I could wear every article down to the threads!) At the same time, my partner and I got more creative with how we marketed ourselves online—which brings me to my next point.

Focus on what you love and what you’re good at (which are likely the same things)

We started to market Harbor Compliance by publishing free do-it-yourself resources online—including detailed guides for starting a nonprofit in every state. Since not everyone can afford to pay for help when they’re just starting out, these resources were in high demand, and the feedback we received was very positive. We were helping people doing what we enjoyed doing, so we continued to invest in publishing more resources. It was rewarding work.

This approach also proved to be our best-ever marketing tactic. We gained greater visibility, which in turn helped our business grow, which finally solved my need to make a living wage. Not only were we helping a lot of people, we were getting new clients and making money in the process. Suddenly, life was good!

Volunteer within your area of expertise for greatest impact

I now had more means to volunteer. But I still needed to be smart about how I spent my time because we were insanely busy. I figured that I could deliver far greater value volunteering in my industry than I could in another area that I didn’t know a lot about. So I become a volunteer for ASSETS Lancaster, a local nonprofit helping low-income and minority populations start businesses and improve their financial situations. As a mentor and a trainer for a 10-week self-employment training course, I was able to use my knowledge and experience to make a great impact.

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About the Author | Mike Montali is co-founder of Harbor Compliance, a document filing service that helps people register their businesses and nonprofits. Connect with Mike on Idealist, and find Harbor Compliance on Twitter (@harborcorp) and Facebook.

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