Note: This article first appeared in the March 2021 issue of PRSA’s Strategies & Tactics magazine.
Volunteering your time and skills as a professional can be a terrific investment in many ways. Things like sitting on nonprofit boards, volunteering for industry organizations, mentoring and providing pro bono services can help you increase exposure in the marketplace, beef up skill-sets and/or build lasting relationships with other professionals. It can also bring a deep sense of personal fulfillment, especially if the cause is near and dear to your heart. But how can you make the most of volunteering?
Volunteering is not without its potential pitfalls. One risk is committing so much time to volunteering that you don’t leave enough time in your day for doing paid work. (This is of particular risk to independent practitioners who have full control over how they spend their days.) Also, committing to the wrong volunteer opportunities could leave you feeling drained and resentful, rather than energized and satisfied.
In order to make the most of volunteering, here are a few questions you should ask yourself when assessing the opportunity.
Do I have the time?
Each of us has 24 hours in a day. How we spend those hours is up to us, including how many we give to others. PR professionals also have the added challenge of unpredictable and sometimes all-consuming schedules.
If offered a new volunteer opportunity, get a clear understanding of how much time you should expect to commit in order to do a good job. Also, find out when you’d need to be available, such as during workdays and/or nights and weekends, to see if the opportunity will work with your schedule. Then, be honest with yourself about whether, given your other commitments, accepting the volunteer position is realistic.
Do I have the energy?
Assuming you have the time available to commit to volunteering, next ask yourself if you have the energy for it. For example, let’s pretend you’re considering writing the newsletter for a nonprofit during your free time in the evenings. Let’s also assume your day-job requires you to write all day at work. Does the idea of leaving the office to go home and write more pump you up or get you down?
Consider how the required volunteer activities would impact your overall energy level and mood, taking into account your other responsibilities and lifestyle.
What do I want to get out of this?
One of the most important things you should ask yourself when considering a volunteer opportunity is what you hope to get out of it. How will taking on this responsibility move you toward your goals? This may sound self-serving, but I have seen first-hand that some of the most engaged and motivated volunteers have a clear vision for what they hope to accomplish in accepting their positions. It’s a win-win for both the volunteer and the organization.
There are many reasons for volunteering in a professional capacity: to learn new skills, get leadership experience, develop new business, build relationships with other professionals, or simply support what you deem a worthwhile cause. Be clear on what you aim to achieve through volunteering, then seek out opportunities that align with what’s important to you.
Will I bring value to the organization?
It can be frustrating to dedicate your time and attention to a cause only to feel like you’re not making a difference. When assessing a volunteer opportunity, consider whether and how you will bring value to the organization or individual who will be receiving your time.
Ask yourself whether you have the skills and background necessary to make a positive impact. And, if the position requires a steep learning curve that you’re willing to undertake, find out what kind of support will be available to you – such as a veteran volunteer who can take you under their wing. You’ll find the opportunity much more fulfilling if you can see that your efforts are making a difference.
Don’t be afraid to say “no”
Lastly, and most importantly, don’t be afraid to say “no” if an opportunity comes your way that doesn’t check all your boxes. This is hard-won advice I share from personal experience, having done a little too much volunteering and not quite enough billable work in the early days of my independent practice.
It’s flattering to be asked to volunteer, and it may be hard to let someone down. But volunteering can be a big commitment. And, the fact that, by definition, volunteering is not a paid job means it’s even more important to make sure it’s a worthwhile way to spend your limited time.
The good news is, when you do find the right fit for both you and the organization, you’re sure to help make great things happen.