Using Volunteering to open doors for yourself personally and professionally

I’d like to share my experience volunteering with a local charity during the pandemic and highlight the benefits of volunteering for both personal and professional development. I’ll cover why I started volunteering, what I learned and how someone can use volunteering to up-skill themselves to fast track their career goals. 

Moving to a new country brings many challenges. Moving to a new country during a global pandemic is a league on it’s own. I had 1 month to explore London before the first lockdown started, leaving me little time to establish a community in my new surroundings. Everyday was the same… work, eat, Netflix. I didn’t have much else to put my energy into, which left me feeling isolated and over-worked. Outside of occasional Zoom calls with friends back home, I didn’t have social activities to give me relief from the work week to give me that life-is-full feeling. As the pandemic continued on and on, I was feeling like I lacked a sense of purpose. I knew I needed to expand my horizons so I googled local volunteering and came across a charity organization based in my neighborhood called Laamiga. Laamiga is a community based charity run by women for women from migrant and minority backgrounds who want to become financially independent and gain more meaningful employment. I was drawn to it because it presented an opportunity for me to meet new people while aligning with my desire to do more to support minority groups. I immediately applied and was offered a role to be a mentor, as well as a position leading the “Literacy and Digital Skills Hub“. I didn’t know what that meant but I accepted anyway. 🙂

For the past 6 months I’ve been doing biweekly 1 on 1 mentoring for a bright, sweet young woman who is underemployed due to the pandemic. Our sessions cover a broad range of topics, but mostly focus on positioning her for employment opportunities. We spend about half the time brainstorming ideas and the other half casually chatting about lockdown life and other random things. I’ve also been leading a Literacy and Digital Skills Hub as part of a broader initiative to empower minority, migrant and refugee women to gain confidence, reduce feelings of isolation and gain new skills. I designed the course, developed content and facilitated the webinars.
I was expecting to be rewarded with a sense of purpose and some new friends, but I was surprised by the additional career benefits – which got me thinking about volunteering not only as a way of giving back to your community but also as a way of boosting your experience to help you achieve career development objectives. Below I’ll cover personal and professional benefits of taking on a volunteer role. 

Professional

It gave me new skills and experience: I have a goal of becoming a “People Manager” at Amazon. More about how I came to that realization in a separate post, but in general, becoming a people manager is one of those things you don’t have a lot of control over. You can communicate this goal to your manager and take on extracurricular assignments that feed it, but ultimately it’s up to leadership to decide whether you’re ready. I am aware that at this point in my career, I have some gaps to address before I’m ready. If you know what those are for you, whether it’s leadership or something else – volunteering can be an opportunity to strengthen your skills (risk free)! In my case, I knew I needed to work on people development skills. I love getting opportunities to do this at work, but I didn’t feel they were coming fast enough for me to develop at the pace I wanted. By mentoring through Laamiga, I am flexing my coaching muscle, making it stronger by throwing more challenges at it and broadening my expertise by coaching people from various backgrounds and with diverse needs. I bring up my external mentoring to my Amazon manager on a regular basis, to show my commitment to growing my skills.  

You can use volunteering to “stress-test” a skill you’re working on, by plugging it into a new context. This is massively helpful because it comes with limited risk.

It gave me more confidence: It goes without saying, the more you practice, the better you are at something. That is especially the case for public speaking and facilitating. With each webinar I delivered, I felt more confident with my tone, the pace, the questioning and thinking on my feet – and I’ve brought that increased confidence to my work. You can use volunteering to “stress-test” a skill you’re working on, by plugging it into a new context. This is massively helpful because it comes with limited risk. Your boss isn’t there, your peers aren’t watching, and if you screw up you’ll be forgiven because you’re a volunteer!

Personal

It brought me into contact with people from different backgrounds and cultures: Interacting with people from different cultures helps you view life from a different perspective. When you learn about different cultures, you establish new ways of thinking and approaching and solving problems. When I was first delivering webinars for the Literacy and Digital Skills hub, I was having low attendance. My initial reaction was to change the format from a group delivery method to one on one tutoring, which would have been difficult to support with limited resources. One of the other Hub leaders brought up an alternative, which was to form buddy-groups to help the attendees remember to attend and hold one another accountable for joining. We implemented this approach and saw a 50% increase in attendance for future sessions. Coming from a corporate world, I expect people to meet their commitments a but the real world is more complicated than that and expecting this from everyone isn’t realistic. Sometimes a little support is all that’s needed to give someone the foundation they need to follow through. 

It gave me a sense of personal achievement: It feels really good to give back to those who need it. I end every volunteering session on a high, with a sense of achievement even more rewarding than the one I get from accomplishing something at work. With volunteering, I choose how and who I spend my time helping, which is refreshing for someone like me who has dedicated a decade of their career to the priorities of corporations. That sense of achievement has also given me greater confidence in what I can achieve on my own, and it’s got my juices flowing about where else I can apply my resourcefulness and problem solving skills to create value. 

I hope you enjoyed reading this! Would love to hear your thoughts in the comments or via email.

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