Learn new skills while giving back.
Too often people separate their work lives from the rest of their lives. However, one of the many bridges between work and nonwork activities is volunteering.
Both of us learned the importance of volunteering from our parents, who were and are involved in many community activities. And we both wanted to model it for our kids when we became parents so they would also know the importance of volunteering.
While we didn't realize it when we were young, the power of volunteering goes beyond giving back. First, away from the demands and intensity of the job, volunteering is a great way to learn new skills or refine ones you're working on. Second, it gives you access to new networks of people and even lifelong friends, which the two of us have become after first meeting at a chapter leader reception. It also builds your competence, confidence, and perspective. In addition, while volunteering, you meet people you may not have met otherwise, opening up new worlds to you. And finally, you can develop skills and perform roles you may be constrained from in your current work or which you need to develop to be promoted to another job or level.
Tons of nonprofit organizations need bright, willing, and capable individuals. The turnover of volunteers is about 50 percent on average, which means there are always openings. Volunteering can be one of the best paths to develop yourself, help others, boost your career, improve your mood, and reduce stress—a quintuple win. Let's look at each.
Develop yourself in multiple ways. You learn from being part of the organization you are volunteering with, learning its mission, purpose, and how it operates. You learn whatever job you are doing and from the staff and other volunteers with whom you are working alongside.
Give back. You help by using the talents and skills you have and by acquiring new skills to contribute. Your expertise is welcome and needed either way.
Enhance your resume. Volunteering provides new avenues for career growth that you can add to your resume and profile, all while strengthening your network and building relationships.
Elevate your mood. Giving back provides you with a sense of purpose and joy, which contributes to increased self-confidence. As a result of helping others, you feel better about yourself. That gives a boost to your endorphins, leading to greater happiness.
Take a break from the day-to-day stresses of work and life. Volunteering is a change of pace from your regular work, doing something you enjoy. This is not to say that volunteering doesn't have its own stressors, but it's different if it is something you are passionate about.
Where to find opportunities
Some places to look for volunteer roles include professional associations, charitable foundations, special needs advocate organizations, sorority and fraternity entities, alumni associations, performing arts centers, and historical groups. A quick internet search of volunteer opportunities in your area of interest—for example, "volunteer opportunities with animals near me"—likely will provide an array of possibilities.
The assignments organizations offer to new volunteers usually will be entry level and driven by need (or even desperation). Don't look to start at the top, even if the organization needs new leadership.
The volunteer assignment may be working a phone, staffing a reception desk, making deliveries, dishing out food, or serving on a committee. You most likely won't be in charge but rather will be reporting to someone else. At other times, the organization may expect you to jump in and contribute higher-level work. It's important to willingly help and become a valuable asset. Realize that organizations are initially looking to you for your time and effort.
As you get more involved, the organization will start to welcome more expertise and ideas. The beauty of volunteering is that, up to a certain point, you get to decide what to offer and your level of involvement (some organizations, however, have minimum time thresholds, such as two evenings per month). To get the most out of volunteering, be willing to bring openness, flexibility, and leadership in whatever capacity you are serving.
After becoming involved for some time, you can begin to navigate the organization and identify some different opportunities and roles that interest you. When looking at future assignments, ask yourself:
- Will it help me develop a new skill set or different perspective?
- What are the pathways to get to that position? Will I need to serve in other positions first?
- What skills do I need to develop and how can I develop them?
- Beyond the volunteer role, how will those skills help me in my day-to-day work and career?
What volunteering has done for us
Here's our story from one of the professional organizations where we volunteer. We both joined our local professional association chapter, starting out by registering people at monthly meetings. We each volunteered for a committee focused on monthly programming. From there, Rick wanted to develop his finance skills and was elected as vice president of finance; Howard had a passion for marketing and was elected as vice president of marketing.
Working with the then-vice presidents, we created plans to develop ourselves for the positions. We read books, took courses, looked at best practices, and received a lot of coaching from current and previous board members. We gained competence in our roles, which eventually led to serving as chapter presidents. From there, we went on to serve as volunteers at the national level.
Additionally, we were able to use the knowledge we gained to further our careers. Rick was hired a few years later in an executive position, partially because he had the financial acumen for the role. And Howard's experience in marketing led to some large marketing projects for the chapter and eventually to jobs in which he marketed executive education.
Because of their volunteer involvement and leadership, many people we know have developed skills beyond what they were able to develop at their full-time job—skills that led to new jobs, promotions, or additional assignments.
Skills from volunteering are numerous
In addition to financial acumen and marketing, consider some of the other skills you could develop as a volunteer—for example, communication, persuasion, negotiation, project management, teamwork, and strategic planning.
Not only are you developing yourself for your professional life with the skills and attributes you gain as a volunteer, you are building competencies you can use in other roles and companies. We have both volunteered in many different organizations, often moving rapidly to the leadership and board levels because of our previous experience. We were able to leverage our earlier volunteer experience to gain even more skills and perspective, resulting in a broader impact. You may even turn your volunteer role into your next job.
No matter where you choose to spend your volunteer time, it is important to find an organization or cause that you can be passionate about. From small one-hour tasks to multiyear leadership roles, many opportunities are available while growing your skill set.
Our volunteering has, in part, led us to the develop the mantra "Learn, Give, Grow, Repeat."
6 Steps to Strategically Plan Your Volunteering
1. Identify an organization about which you are passionate. You will be doing this in your free time, so make sure you care.
2. Be willing to start in an entry-level role. Remember that when you begin, the work likely won't be glamorous.
3. Network with both members and other volunteers. Connect not only with the cause but with others who are also committed to it.
4. Be willing to bring openness, flexibility, and leadership in whatever capacity you are serving.
5. Develop the skills you need to be successful. Use the opportunity as a win-win and gain useful expertise.
5. Reevaluate yourself and your goals on an annual basis. Is this opportunity giving you the skills and experience you hoped and anticipated?
6. Apply the knowledge you gain as a volunteer to your workplace and career. Continue to grow and develop yourself by using your new skills in multiple situations.
Find the Right Fit
You have 168 hours available each week for work, life, family, health, and other commitments. Ask yourself these questions to find the right volunteer opportunity:
- Is this a cause or organization I really care about and where I want to spend my valuable time? Why am I interested in helping here?
- What are the expected commitments? Identify the true time obligations required in the role you are seeking, and make sure they match your expectations. Beware: Organizations often take as much time as you will give them.
- Do I like or admire the people I'm volunteering with? If it's not a match, consider other organizations.
- Am I willing to navigate the organization's politics and bureaucracy?
- Does it fit my life goals? How is this furthering me along my current life's journey? Your goals and needs will change over time, so remember that signing up doesn't mean a lifetime commitment.
- Where do I see this leading to? How will it help me? Learning new skills, having fun, building your resume, and growing your network are all valid answers.
- What will it cost me beyond my time? What financial commitment is expected in contributions, travel expenses, etc.? Am I ready to make the financial and time commitment required, as well as the prep time, actual volunteering time, retreats, and donations?