Volunteering to Benefit Your Career

Last week I blogged about volunteering and what I see in the value of what I give back to my community. This week I want to take that a step farther and explain how you can use volunteering to help you in your career or even to help you decide what career to pursue.
I've been asked by many young aspiring IT professionals if they can work for me “doing what I do”. I have to sit them down and explain that, at my level, the years of experience required to "do what I do" are long and littered with the casualties of the brutal hours and failed projects. (a topic for another blog)
What I tend to do is recommend that if someone is interested in IT, has some skills but nobody will hire them is to consider volunteering. Many nonprofit organizations have shoestrings for budgets and will welcome any and all help that they can find. If they have someone willing to toil away for countless hours installing, configuring and fixing computer problems, you will have friends for life. On the flip side, you will be gaining invaluable time that will look very impressive on a resume. The other big but secret bonus is this: If you don’t know how to use their web graphic design program but express an interest in learning, you will be more than welcomed to learn. You will have access to the hardware and software and time. Not many companies today will pay for an inexperienced person to learn new programs on their own time and dime. How much better can it get than that!
Now, not only will you have gained IT experience but you have a double win with the volunteer work. Employers look at potential employees very carefully and having volunteer work on your resume (or CV) will go a long way to showing your level of commitment and dedication. These are qualities that are highly desired by resume screeners and hiring managers.
So if you are looking at IT and want to get into it and give it a go, volunteer and find an nonprofit organization who is looking for someone who is willing to learn on the job and help where others are not willing to help. The other benefits to volunteering can be found on my previous blog.
Now the other aspect of volunteering is how it can be of great value to your career. Say you want to take on more challenging responsibilities but your boss just isn't giving them to you. Or you have reached the top and there is nothing else that you can learn or take on in your current job. Great ways to add skills to your portfolio are to (you guessed it) volunteer! Volunteer organizations have so many opportunities that it would take many weeks to list them all.
If you volunteer for a large event, you can get experience in event coordination. There are college diploma programs that are focused on event coordinator planning. Spend several months (or years) coordinating large scale volunteer events and you will learn more than you could ever learn in school. Remember that school is just the beginning of your learning path. Large scale events usually have several (if not more) coordinators and Rule #1 always applies is this situation. (see Rule #1 below)
If project management is your cup of tea but you just haven't had the chance to manage a large project, look for a volunteer organization who needs an assistant to the volunteer coordinator. They will more than likely hand off as much as they can. Volunteer coordinators are managing large scale, multi-year projects. Don't forget: Volunteers are always looking for their replacement. Did I forget to mention that?
The other aspect of volunteering is the ability to be assigned positions where you can become a people manager. Volunteer coordinators have to interview, hire, and fire volunteers. Getting practice in these situations where it isn't as life changing for the people on the other side of the table can only be learned on the job. Unless you have taken acting lessons, you probably haven't gone through the process of hiring a bright, talented individual only to find out that they were a scam and had to be terminated.
Another great way to gain skills that you might never get at work is to volunteer for boards, executives or other committees. These are the groups that handle the overall budget, long term planning and other activities that in a typical company are handled at a senior level. This experience is excellent if you plan or want to plan on moving up the chain and into management.
So what is stopping you from getting out there and volunteering? I haven’t regretted any of my volunteer work and I am always looking for more responsibilities and challenges that I apply to my own career.
One last note: Don’t forget the other people that are out there volunteering. You may bump into another volunteer who needs an IT guy and you just so happen to fit the bill, come with excellent references and a proven track record at your current volunteer organization. Rule #1 also applies in this situation. That volunteer you are working beside or with or for maybe on the hunt for new talent.
Volunteer Rule #1: Once you volunteer for a position, always be on the lookout for your replacement.
You never know how long you will be in that position before you can recruit your replacement.
Volunteer Rule #2: Dress for the job and perform like you are being paid.
Take on the responsibilities as if it was your real job. This will help those who manage you provide excellent references to potential employers.

More rules will follow in later blogs, so stay tuned.


Volunteerism (as defined in Wikipedia) is the willingness of people to work on behalf of others without being motivated by financial or material gain.

Volunteering is an important part of my life. A long time go, I couldn't have even imagined that I would be saying something like this. I can remember when I would talk to friends or co-workers who would take vacation time from work to volunteer for an event. To me, this was insanity. Taking a week or two of precious holiday time to spend all of your free time working for free was not something I would even consider.

Today, I am talking a different story. I have come to enjoy my volunteer activities. I could not have imagined all that I would get out of volunteering. The friendships, sense of community, accomplishments and pride make the amount of time committed seem insignificant. Giving back to the community has become far more important to me than having a couple of hours to myself to watch TV.

Stepping up and volunteering can be surprisingly easy. If you have ever mowed your neighbor's lawn or shoveled the snow off of their sidewalk, you have already volunteered your time. The next step is to volunteering on a regular basis is to go out an look for organizations that need volunteers. This can be as easy as spending time at a homeless shelter serving meals to the highly demanding responsibilities of serving on the board of directors for a volunteer organization.

For me, I spend twenty to forty hours a month, dividing up my time among 4 different organizations. During this summer months, this can increase to an almost full-time job. I can easily spend every weekend in the summer months volunteering at community events or festivals. Added up, this consumes any and all of my free time. This is where it gets tricky balancing work, family time and hobbies with volunteer activities. I have yet to take an entire week of summer vacation volunteering for an event but I will probably make that step this summer at the 2009 Edmonton Indy Car race. I have attended the race every year and the excitement is electrifying and I want to immerse myself in the entire week of events that lead up to the actual race. Now I'm getting sidetracked from what I wanted to talk about.

Volunteering is both very rewarding and fulfilling. When I first started, I really wasn't sure how much time I would be able to spend and wanted to limit my exposure and time commitment. I looked for something that wasn't took intensive and didn't require more than a couple of hours a month. I didn't have to look far as my local community league was looking for volunteers for various events. The time, scope of work and distance to travel was something that I could manage. From there, I got informed about what was happening in and around my neighborhood and wanted to make a difference in a positive and measurable way. That was a springboard for wanting to get involved with making my community a safer place. This turned into a journey that I look back on and can't believe where it has taken me. I eventually wound up volunteering with the Edmonton Police Service, the Community Police Radio Network and other smaller volunteer organizations. Both of these organizations look for people with skills and a willingness to give time to helping out with various activities. One of the highlights for me was getting to stand on the high level bridge and watch the Canada Day fireworks from the best seat in the house. I also discovered, by accident, a requirement for my IT skills in a unique way. I turned my professional consulting practice into a volunteer consulting practice assisting a team within the EPS. The major challenge that I face now is ensuring that I don't over commit with my my time to volunteering.

Today (Jan 19) is a very special day in the United States and the message from the new administration is helping your community by volunteering in any way shape or form. With the start of a new year, go out and do whatever you can to volunteer and make a difference in your community.

Next week I am going to focus on how volunteering can help your career by learning new job or life skills.

(if you see any typos or gramatical errors, please let me know)

The speed of life

It is one thing that I have come to realize over all these years is that people's expectations on how fast things can be accomplished has greatly accelerated in the last decade. No, make that the last 20 years. The opportunities that are now available to kids today were only something that I could dream about when I was a child. Before then, my father and his father couldn't even dream about such fanciful things as they struggled to feed the family.
Today, people live in a technological society (modern western) that encourages the excesses of life. To get the best paying job that you can find so that you can buy that dream life that you wished for as a young adult. Or living the life that your parents dreamed that you would have.
I look at the pace of life and often consider what choices I make that pull me back into the fast lane. So fast in fact that I often have to use a parachute or speed brake to get myself grounded and thinking about what I need in life and not those things that I want.
I spend a great deal of time volunteering my time to give back to my community. Even these interactions show me the fast pace of life that those that are less fortunate have but can't make their most basic dreams come true. They are busy trying to work every angle or job to make ends meet.
I am often reminded about what I can do to slow down and look around. Now this is easier said than done. Slowing down isn't (by my nature) something that I can easily do. My career and brain chemistry cause me to be always going Mach 1, trying to avoid slowing down as it will only take me longer to get back up to speed.
My personal activities are geared to keep me going as fast as possible and I treat anything that will slow me down like the black plague.
However, every once in a while, I have one of those moments of clarity that gently remind me what it is like to live at a slower pace and really enjoy and appreciate life. Today I was privileged to take care of a sick child (just a cold) but it is on these days that I really slow down and pay attention. All of the questions, ensuring that they have something to drink, that I have the perfect animated movie for them to watch (there I go with technology when I should be reading them a book) and that they are snuggled in front of a wood stove with plenty of warm blankets. All of these things make me forget out the fast paced life that I lead and challenges that I have to overcome, new skills that I have to learn by tomorrow or the never-ending deadline at work.
I have to remind myself that I can't completely "unplug", move to Tibet and lead a life of solitude. But I can take steps to slow down and really appreciate the things that I have, the friends that I have made and the life that I have been blessed with. Sure, I can always make more changes and improvements but life, like a home renovation project, takes time and I am going to take the time and always be working on it.