Volunteering – Getting as Good as You Give

I participated in a panel at the SLA 2017 Annual Conference entitled Beyond the Day Job: Developing Leadership Skills Through Voluntary Service. My recap (below) was originally posted on the SLA LMD blog:

It was my honor and pleasure to join four of my colleagues as one of the presenters on this panel. The session was set-up as a reverse round table – instead of a panel of talking heads seated at the front of the room, we split the attendees into three groups and rotated each group through individual discussions with the presenters, allowing for a more conversational style that invited people to interact, ask questions, and share their own experiences within the small groups.

The Discussions

Although we all think there are a great number of benefits to volunteering in a variety of capacities, each of the presenters had decided in advance to select one key area that we had found personally beneficial in career advancement.

Emma Davidson highlighted what she refers to as “tactical volunteering” to get experience you need but aren’t getting as part of your day job. She suggests that you start by doing a skills audit – what do you need to learn and/or develop in order to get your dream job? Or even your next job or promotion? She suggests looking at appealing job descriptions, and then finding a volunteer opportunity that will allow you to acquire or practice those specific skills. Plan ahead so you’re ready to make the leap when an opportunity arises.

Deb Hunt focused on the area of transferable skills that you can apply to a variety of different career opportunities, calling out in particular a skill that you might not normally think about – the ability to go outside your comfort zone, to stretch yourself into unfamiliar territory and try new things. Your ability to take chances and expand into new roles transcends discreet skills like creating a budget or running a meeting, and makes you an all-around more employable person, both to your current and potential employers. It also expands your own sense of what you might see yourself applying for when you might not otherwise think there was a direct match. Volunteering, particularly with an organization like SLA, allows experimentation in roles and tasks that might not be immediately comfortable to you, without the pressure of your next raise or promotion hinging on the experience.

Brandy King focused on gaining skills in Project Management, Mentoring, and Social Media Marketing. Her key take-away for a successful volunteer experience is to ask specifically what kind of time commitment is expected, not just over the course of the week but over the course of year. Many volunteer positions have busy and light periods, and you’ll want to know if they coordinate well with your own schedule.

Bill Fisher discussed developing broad communication skills, including the ability to explain a concept without making it unnecessarily complicated; being able to read a room, whether in a presentation or a one-on-one conversation; and taking time to craft and review written communications to prevent misunderstandings.

My personal focus was on the acquisition of supervisory experience and the specific skill of inter-generational communication.

Although there are additional projects I work on, the two primary volunteer roles I have given my time to over the last 15 years have been to SLA and to WildCare, a wildlife rehabilitation center in Marin County, CA. While one could easily make a joke here about working with animals in both settings, and while I do spend a lot of time working directly with animals at WildCare, both of these volunteer positions have revolved largely around managing teams of humans – perhaps the most challenging animal to wrangle of all!

I joined SLA in 2001 and have volunteered with the association continuously since 2002. Among the many different roles I’ve had within the overall organization and the units, I have served as President of the San Francisco Bay Region Chapter and as Chair of SLA’s Nominating Committee for the 2016 election. Both of these roles required careful navigation of sensitive information and a multiplicity of ideas and opinions, as well as the ability to keep people engaged and on-task, often during a process that was, perhaps, lengthier than expected.

In addition to cleaning cages, making food for patients, and assisting medical staff with handling and medicating wild animals, my role at WildCare is as a Clinic Supervisor for the Sunday morning shift, where I supervise a team of 10+ volunteers, ages 14 to 60+. Learning how to interact with and lead a group of people with vastly different life experiences and interests, and to build them into a team in which each person is as willing and eager to clean the cage of a goose with an intestinal malady (you have no idea…) as to learn how to hold a Great Horned Owl, presents new challenges and negotiations all the time.

A key aspect of supervising a group of people in a volunteer organization, and leading them to a shared vision for working together to meet your common goals, is that they are not being paid to be there. They don’t have to show up if they don’t want to be there and if you don’t make it worth their while. While a leader in these settings can, and should, require a high level of commitment and performance from the individuals on the team, this reality does tend to augment the need to build a culture of respect, education, communication, collegiality, and recognition that can be lacking in some paid employment.

Throwing into this mix the need to communicate and deal well with people both 20 years your junior and your senior magnifies the need to manage both the individual and the team. This opportunity to work and have fun with “kids these days” has definitely made it easier for me to communicate with and understand the needs of summer associates at my previous law firm employer. Meanwhile, the ability to teach an older person a new skill can undoubtedly be applied to certain law firm partners encountering newfangled database features.

While attaining skills that I can put into use right away, I have also been gaining experience that has made me more employable. When I was looking for a new job a couple of years ago, one of the positions I interviewed for was as a manager of the information team in two offices of an international law firm. Looking only at the professional positions on my resume, one would see only Individual Contributor-type roles, with supervisory experience limited to a random project here and there. However, I was able to highlight my experiences supervising teams in both my SLA roles and at WildCare to broaden this employer’s perception of my skill set. Although I decided to accept a different position, it was my volunteer experience that earned me an offer to a supervisory position for which I otherwise would not have been qualified.

The Wrap-Up

The nature of the reverse round table meant that I didn’t have the pleasure of hearing everyone else’s full discussion, but the group came back together at the end of the session to highlight some of the key points that generated interesting discussions in our small groups.

Each of the presenters are clearly active and engaged volunteers within SLA and of course we would love to have all session attendees, or indeed all SLA members, find a volunteer opportunity within SLA that is meaningful to both you and to the organization. There are so many ways to get involved, and each can represent a way to acquire or develop a clearly relevant skill that you can immediately add to your toolkit and your resume.

However, I strongly believe that those skills can come from any type of organization that feeds an extracurricular interest and makes you into a more fully-rounded person. In our groups we heard from people who have gained relevant career experience from volunteering with a food bank, a labor union, the Peace Corps, and wildlife conversation efforts.

Volunteerism and service to a group or to an effort that is important to you can be built into your life, understanding there are various degrees of time-constraints at different points in everyone’s life. Important leadership and management skills can be developed in many different volunteer settings, and once you get involved you’re more likely to see the value, both personal and professional, of volunteering more broadly.

When you do, SLA will welcome your time and interest as a more engaged member. As I said in my final remarks at the session, I have never understood how a person could expect an organization to speak for them or be the thing they want it to be unless they are willing to get involved and put into it as much as they want and expect to get out of it.