Professionals have often donated their time, know-how and experience to non-profits as a way to give back to the community. During the recent recession, many discovered that the relationships built through this process created a strong business network on which they were able to rely and seek out new business opportunities. As the economy regains its strength and professionals are embarking on new opportunities, the authors seek to make a case for a third benefit of volunteering: the development of crucial skills. In this paper, the authors will explore how skills can be developed through non-profit involvement, the challenges individuals face in these commitments, and present several case studies on these benefits.
Volunteering has often been regarded as a “nice thing to do” and a corporate citizenship necessity. Many companies donate time, and sometimes executive talent, to local and national non-profits. Professionals at all levels donate their time as part of the corporate structure, and sometimes due to personal commitments to better their community. There has been a lack of connection of the value for the individual in this endeavor beyond the immediate corporate goals. In this paper, the authors will show a lasting value created in the lives of individuals who fully commit to non-profit leadership and volunteering.
Before presenting the benefits, the authors first want to acknowledge the challenges in making these commitments. The biggest challenge most professionals will encounter is time availability and achieving work/home life balance. As displaced workers begin new jobs at which they seek to excel, the will be especially challenged to find time for involvement with non-profits.
Benefit #1: Personal Satisfaction and Growth
The first benefit we want to recognize is the personal satisfaction that is regularly received through volunteering. Interests and passions can change for an individual through a lifetime, and the involvement with non-profits can allow a person to experience a community connection and balance while continuing to proceed with his or her professional path.
Benefit #2: Networking
During the recent economic downturn, professionals turned increasingly to their networks to seek out opportunities in a difficult job market. Professionals with strong non-profit ties found they had a great asset at their disposal, and many (including one of the authors) were connected to a new opportunity through the developed non-profit network.
Non-profit networking also allows young professionals to observe more seasoned executives in action and develop new frames of references for decision making. Executives can mentor young professionals to understand the skills needed for making the difficult decisions that are required at the managerial and executive levels of leadership. Senior leaders benefit as well: gaining informal access to the pulse and values of the next generation entering the workforce.
Benefit #3: Skills Enhancement
A third benefit of volunteering is skills enhancement. This third benefit is important to recognize, particularly as the economy improves and out-of-work professionals return to the market place. Skills enhancement takes two forms: specific skills and “soft” skills. The “soft” skills of people management can be crucial especially for young professionals who seek managerial/executive roles in the future. As mentioned in the previous section on networking, the mentorship of executive can play a part in this development as can hands-on leadership building as a volunteer.
An example of someone who used her non-profit experience to leverage a new career is Heidi Holley. Ms. Holley worked in retail management professionally, and donated her time and energy to volunteering for the Junior League of Minneapolis, as a Board Member for Our Savior’s House, and several other organizations. She excelled in donor relations and honed her skills with joy and pride, always making a significant difference in the community and her organizations. When her company was bought out and many of her colleagues displaced to the new corporate headquarters, Ms. Holley decided it was time to make a change. She knew how much she had enjoyed her volunteering and determined that she would pursue a new career utilizing that well-developed skill set. Ms. Holley is now a Gift Officer in Development at a well-established Twin Cities University, where she excels in her role working on planned and major gifts. Her years of volunteer work prepared her to make this mid-career shift.
Kenny Liao, a chapter leader of the Texas Exes, The University of Texas at Austin's alumni organization, learned a great leadership lesson through his volunteering. In running the chapter, Mr. Liao has had to make some tough decisions that he felt would best benefit the membership. He has learned to accept that not everyone will be happy with every decision, and that sometimes you just have to let that go. This was a lesson he was able to transfer into his professional life, both as a strategy consultant and now at his job in corporate strategy. His team often has to make key strategic decisions with which not everyone in the company agrees; the key has been to gather everyone's thoughts to put together the best strategy based on thorough research and evaluation of market conditions.
Volunteering can also provide an opportunity to develop the “soft” skills that many technical employees require to advance their professional careers and transition into management. Debbie Hoffman, Executive Director of Habitat for Humanity of Williamson County, Texas has witnessed the growth of many young professionals. They often come with a team of colleagues to work on one of Habitat's houses. Once outside their professional environments, the interactions change, and the young managers begin learning how to coach and interact with team members. Ms. Hoffman has followed up with several of these managers who shared how invaluable the experience was to becoming effective leaders.
Essential benefits of volunteering with non-profits were identified: personal satisfaction and corporate citizenship; networking; and skills enhancement. As professionals return to the work force and new jobs create conflict for time and energy, the authors encourage professionals to continue to volunteer for continued career development and enhancement.