Recently I had the pleasure to participate in a roundtable discussion on networking. I, along with four other colleagues answered questions before an audience on the various approaches–and purposes–behind networking in a business context.
Of course, what we all consistently emphasized was the value of being a giver, and it was my colleague Frank Agin, President of AmSpirit Business Connections, who raised an important point about volunteering. Indeed, volunteering is one of the most important ways to network. If fact, it helps in ways that most people cannot imagine.
With as busy as so many of us get with earning a living and caring for our families, it begs the question: why give our time? For many (if not most) of us, our faith answers that question. However, beyond the altruistic reasons, there many pragmatic, self-serving reasons as well. This was a lesson I first shared with college students in my book Don’t Wait Until You Graduate!—however they apply equally to everyone, regardless of where you are in your career. The benefits are both tangible and intangible—personal and professional. Most important however is that they are residual. If you let them, they will continue to have a positive effect on you for the rest of your life.
I will go through the first five here, and send out the remaining next week. So here we go:
1. You serve others and yourself at the same time.
When you give your time and talents—putting together the menu for a shelter kitchen, doing publicity for a local advocacy group, watching children in a day center, or answering phones for the American Red Cross—you help yourself in many ways.
The first is by making your community a better place in which to live. Those served by your organization—whether they are elderly people who are shut in, men and women stricken with disease, or children who have no place to call home—are the ones you benefit.
Take a visit to any service organization in your area, preferably one that has a highly visible impact. Count the volunteers. Ask yourself: what would happen to my community if these people didn’t take the time to care?
What will happen to peoples’ lives if you don’t?
By taking action and getting involved, you not only improve the quality of life, you improve the economic interest people take in the area, thus beginning a cycle of stability and peace of mind for everyone. Furthermore, you can take a healthy pride in solutions you have developed and the good works you have done to help others.
2. You build lasting relationships with other people.
Excluding all “people strategies” and “how to work a room” tactics, at its heart, networking is simply the process of building relationships with other people.
Good News! Volunteering is one of the most effective ways to network! As a volunteer, you demonstrate your abilities, not only in your field, but as a communicator and a team player. Your commitment of time and energy to a good cause demonstrates a strong character ethic. You have established your credibility and trustworthiness amongst your colleagues and may have won some favors too.
And instead of the usual hierarchy which you are likely to encounter in a business, at a volunteer organization, you often are perceived as an equal, regardless of your age or the level of your skills. Even more, you are openly appreciated for the time and effort you give, mainly because you could be doing something else—like sitting at home watching television.
Also consider this: people working together on a project or task in which they both believe is one of the strongest ways to build lasting relationships. When individuals whose lives are grounded in basic, timeless principles encounter another who appears to share those qualities, they tend to take a liking to them and feel a common bond or friendship.
As a result, it is also easier to stay in touch with those individuals, which is very important to building strong relationships, and thus, a strong network (not to mention picking up a few centers of influence).
3. You enhance your expertise.
Twenty five years ago, I volunteered as a newsletter editor for the Columbus YWCA. At that time, I had very little experience in actual newsletter editing and production. The first couple of issues showed it! But not for long. I fine tuned my skills in that area.
When you seek out volunteer opportunities you may, if you already have chosen your calling, be interested in work that helps to fulfill that calling. A PR professional might seek work involving public relations or communications for a homeless shelter. A student involved in education may be interested in working with children at a YMCA day-care center. An aspiring nurse may wish to get experience working with the sick through the Red Cross or with an advocacy group.
Just by starting out in the right direction you develop precision and skills that will be indispensable down the road.
4. You develop skills that employers seek out universally, yet are not often found.
In a timeless article in Journal of Career Planning and Employment titled “What Small Firms Look for in New-Graduate Candidates,” authors Constance Pritchard and Paul Fidler make some very clear distinctions as to what most employers examine:
- Skills, abilities and personal characteristics
- Energy, initiative, motivation and self-direction
- A team player with interpersonal and oral communication skills
Of less concern were items (a few to my surprise) traditionally found on resumes, such as leadership roles, creativity and written communication. Of least importance were GPA and other academic credentials.
The great thing about volunteer work is that it can help you develop all of these attributes. Quite simply, volunteer work is the opportunity that you make of it.
Let’s look at some of the top credentials that, according to these authors, employers look for. Remember these are skills applicable to virtually every field of endeavor, so you can’t look at any of them and say they don’t apply to you.
Oral communication was one of the most sought-after skills. It is basically the ability to carry out a conversation and convey yourself effectively, especially in some formal setting. If fact, many of the representatives I met a the recent nonprofit event were in fact volunteers themselves–and they were having to make their “pitch” in three minutes! This is not a skill that comes easily to most, but with practice it can be developed. And it was.
Regarding skills, abilities and personal characteristics, we have already discussed how service work can help you develop specific skills of countless variety, be they technical or social. By building a track record and relationships within an organization that works for something you feel is important, you also reveal a piece of your character. This represents your values, your goals and how you align your life with basic fundamental principles. It lets others see you as a whole person and a giver, not just for what you might do for a living.
Now let’s examine energy, initiative, motivation and self-direction. One of the beauties of service work is the issue of choice. You choose the work that is important to you, and you take the initiative to make a difference. To take such actions without the direction of someone else is an entrepreneurial trait that knocks the socks off employers. They want a person who is a doer, and if that’s you, then more power to you.
While leadership roles, creativity and written communication were not ranked as high, they are still extremely important. If you demonstrate initiative and self-direction, you develop leadership qualities by default. Creativity is important when providing solutions to problems, and that is needed everywhere. This overlaps with the ability to write, and I will tell you that writing does not come easily, even to professionals. It is one of the most physically and mentally draining tasks one can do. It also takes years to really develop as a skill.
5. You have greater choices and more flexibility.
We alluded to this point earlier. When you volunteer, you do have the power to choose what work you wish to do and how much time to commit to it. Due to the wealth of opportunity for service work, the competition for volunteers among non-profit organizations is strong. These organizations know that if they do not treat you right and give you the respect you deserve, then you can simply go serve somewhere else. And they don’t want that.
As a result, non-profits are often very flexible about project and task assignments. They want you to contribute where you will get the most out of it and feel rewarded. This is also to their benefit, because then you are most likely to put forth your best efforts and add quality to your work.
I hope these first five points gives you something to think about. I will be posting the remaining five benefits next week.