Nearly 27% of adults in America volunteer through a formal organization, with that rate increasing to 42% among college graduates. Across the board, women volunteer at a higher rate than men. Although some people volunteer for purely altruistic reasons, the social, psychological, and career benefits of volunteering should not be underestimated. When I refer to the career benefits of volunteering, I’m not talking about volunteering at a soup kitchen on Thanksgiving. I’m talking about an ongoing commitment to a specific organization that will allow you to gain valuable leadership experience, try your hand at new skills that may benefit you professionally, increase your visibility in the community, and expand your network.
In this article, I will examine the career benefits of volunteering, and provide recommendations to help you determine which volunteer opportunities are most likely to provide those benefits.
How can volunteering benefit your career?
Obtain leadership experience. With the flattening of corporate hierarchies, opportunities to hone management skills are becoming increasingly scarce. At the same time, one of the most important ways leadership lessons are learned is through trial and error. Taking on a leadership role in a nonprofit can be an excellent way to gain or deepen your leadership experience. I once became President of a nonprofit after the previous President moved out of state. Membership had dwindled to only 30% of what it had been in prior years, events were poorly attended, and the Treasury was low on funds. In less than 2 years as President, I rebuilt the organization to over 80 members. Volunteering to lead this nonprofit out of a challenging time taught me many valuable professional skills: building and managing an executive board, regaining the trust and interest of disappointed members, developing a leadership pipeline, marketing the organization, seeking donations, delivering speeches to large audiences, and much more.
Gain visibility and recognition in the community for your existing skills. Use your professional skills to help a nonprofit. For example, if you are an Accountant, volunteer to serve as Treasurer of a nonprofit organization. New contacts you make through volunteering will become aware of your skills, which could translate into business or job opportunities. Also, if at work you only are responsible for one facet of a project in your area of expertise, volunteering may allow you to have autonomy over an entire project much sooner than you would be able to at work.
Develop new secondary skills that could benefit your career. If you are seeking to complement your professional profile with new skills, consider seeking them in a nonprofit setting. Anyoli Font, Provider Relations Manager at MedTrust Network and President of the Kiwanis Club of Miramar/Pembroke Pines, Florida, shared “Through my volunteer work, I was able to fill all the gaps on my resume.” At her job, Anyoli mainly works alone. Anyoli credits her volunteer experiences for the opportunity to develop skills such as teamwork, running meetings, public speaking and planning large-scale events.
Test your aptitude and interest in a different area before making a career change. Imagine you are a successful Engineer, but have been thinking about seeking a position in the Sales division of your company. Why not volunteer for the Development Committee of a nonprofit, and see how effective you are at obtaining donations first? The nonprofit will be glad to have your help, even if you are not experienced in the area. While you determine whether Sales is a good fit for you, you will gain confidence, take on a new challenge, and ideally, also raise funds for a worthy cause in the process.
Expand your network and sphere of influence. It could be argued that women network differently from men. They focus on nurturing relationships that may prove beneficial in the future, while men tend to network only when they need something. Women’s networking style could prove very conducive to nonprofit settings, where teamwork and long-term relationship building are the focus, as opposed to immediate “give and take.” It goes without saying that volunteering will expand your network substantially, enabling you to get to know people whose paths you probably would not cross as part of your daily routine. You are likely to meet and potentially build relationships with top executives, civic leaders, and other members of the business community who are also interested in the same cause.
Obtain a new set of mentors who see your potential and encourage you to stretch yourself. When others in your organization and in the community begin to recognize your potential, they often will allow you to see strengths and capabilities that you did not see in yourself. Anyoli Font shared a story of a woman who joined her Kiwanis Club. This woman had always wanted to be a leader, but did not believe she was qualified for a leadership position. Anyoli encouraged her to run for Treasurer of the club, and she won the election. Were it not for Anyoli seeing leadership qualities the woman did not see in herself, she would not have achieved her leadership position.
Where to start?
Volunteering can seem to be a lofty goal, one that is often put on the “I meant to…” pile. To fight the inertia that might be keeping you from getting started, consider the following when looking for a volunteer opportunity that will help your career:
1. Causes that are important to you and affiliations you already have. I have always been passionate about helping young people get started in their careers, and I have fond memories of receiving mentorship through my university’s mentor program as a student. When I was asked to serve as a mentor in that same program, it was obvious that it would be a good fit for me. I mentored through that program for five years.
2. Whom you would like to meet. Are the members of the organization retirees or executives? Consider whether the members of a certain organization could include potential clients, your next boss, new friends, or otherwise important contacts. Also, depending on the capacity in which you volunteer, you may also have access to benefactors of the organization. Before you decide to join an organization, do your research through formal and informal channels. Keep in mind that people who are one to two degrees separated from the organization may give you more honest information than current members, who will be trying to encourage you to join.
3. State of the organization. Does the organization have too many volunteers, or too few? While organizations with many volunteers may provide for better networking opportunities, organizations with too few are more likely to offer leadership experience with few hurdles.
4. Meeting schedule. I used to be a member of a nonprofit that had meetings on weeknights. At the time, I worked until 8 or 9pm most nights. This was an organization awash with volunteers, many of whom worked shorter hours than I did or did not work at all. Needless to say, I did not make the best impression arriving late or missing the weeknight meetings, and sometimes having to step out to take phone calls. Since there were so many volunteers, I felt like I got lost in the crowd. While I reaped great rewards from meeting lifelong friends and volunteering in underprivileged communities, the fact that there were many volunteers with a more flexible schedule kept me from being considered for a leadership position.
5. Don’t bite off more than you can chew. Often leaders of volunteer organizations will be so thrilled to see an excited new volunteer that they will ask you to do more than you can commit to. Be careful to strike a balance that is right for you at this particular time in life, and be aware that the balance can shift several times over the years.
Given the benefits to your career and to the community, consider making volunteering an integral part of your career development, rather than viewing it as an optional activity or something you “don’t have time for” as an adult.