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Volunteering? No sorry, I don't have time for that.

Updated: Mar 10, 2023

A friend of mine recently took a year’s sabbatical to go and teach in Africa with the Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO). It got me thinking. We often hear stories about inspiring individuals who generously volunteer extended periods of their time, in far-flung corners of the world. And, while you only need look at the VSO’s blog to see how these volunteers change lives, what I realise from my own volunteering experiences is you don’t have to stray that far from home or commit masses of time to share your skills and make a difference.

So, given less than a quarter of us consistently volunteer and today is dedicated to promoting the contribution volunteering makes, I thought I’d share the three things I’ve found most beneficial by regularly ‘paying it forward’.

1. Volunteering allows you to: Develop & hone your skills.

“Knowledge isn’t power until it’s applied,” said the late American self-help writer, Dale Carnegie. That statement is profound because it is true. It’s why I challenge and support all those I coach to quickly put what they learn into practice. Applying new skills and behaviours in the workplace often feels scary because the stakes can be high. One good way to start is to make what American social psychologist Amy Cuddy calls ‘small tweaks and self nudges’. Another is to engage in volunteering, which can provide a safe test bed for honing new habits.

My own volunteering started in earnest when I chose coaching as a fourth career. I was cutting my teeth as an executive coach and volunteered to coach six of the team at the Bromley By Bow Centre - a pioneering charity that’s created a new model to generate healthy, vibrant communities.

One of the most surprising things I learned from that volunteering experience was just how much I gained from it. I thought, because I was giving up my time and freely sharing my skills, that those I coached would be the only beneficiaries. But I gained so much as well. It’s probably why I continue to volunteer as much as I do. Yes, I get a sense of wellbeing from ‘paying it forward’, but I also always walk away from the experience personally enriched because I have learned something.

2. Volunteering provides a way to: Extend & diversify your network.

It takes effort to build a diverse network but, for me, it’s critical to getting a well-rounded view and stretching how I think and act. Strong and diverse networks provide what one of my favourite authors, Herminia Ibarra, calls ‘outsight’. It’s the idea that your network is diverse enough to challenge - rather than just comfort - you. It doesn’t add value if it’s just an echo chamber. There’s something very powerful about having conversations with people who are different to you.

Volunteering is an incredible way to meet people from completely different walks of life – whose paths you might never cross otherwise.

For example, this Autumn I gifted a day to run three confidence-boosting workshops for 300 high school girls at the Future Asset Conference in Glasgow. My regular work doesn’t see me interacting with women this young, so the Conference was a wonderful opportunity to do so. I benefitted hugely. Not only did I get powerful insights into the barriers that hold young women back before they even enter the workplace, I also got genuinely refreshing, ‘no holds barred’ questions and feedback on my content and delivery style.

Future Asset Conference, Glasgow 2019
Future Asset Conference, Glasgow 2019

I’m grateful to Baillie Gifford (also a Future Asset Conference sponsor) for introducing me to Future Asset. My involvement in the Conference has strengthened my relationship with the firm and given me insights into how to attract young women into asset management. But it’s a river that runs both ways. On several occasions my volunteering has led to new commercial work as a result of extending my network.

3. Volunteering provides a way to: Find or fulfil your purpose.

For near-on a decade, management consultancy Deloitte has been publishing research into human capital trends. In their 2014 report they take a close look at ‘the power of purpose and how the most talented people want to join organisations whose work engages their interests and deserves their passion.’ People have a need for purpose and meaningful work. If you are lucky, your current role gives you this. If it doesn’t, changing your job is one way of finding and fulfilling your passion and purpose. Volunteering is another.

The reason I switched from a successful corporate career to become a coach was to give back – it was the desire to fulfil my purpose that drove the change.

After years of being the only woman in the corporate boardroom, I retrained as a voice and executive coach because deep in my gut I felt I could help women secure leadership roles they love by combining my corporate experience with these two disciplines. Volunteering to run a voice and personal impact masterclass for the 30% Club, whilst studying to be a voice coach, gave me the proof I was looking for. Suddenly, I had found my passion and my purpose. Five years later, I continue to gift my time as a speaker and coach to the 30% Club.

But no matter where my volunteering takes place, it always enables me to fulfil my three-fold purpose 1) to demonstrate the enormous power and value of coaching 2) to 'pay forward' the skills, experience and knowledge I have acquired, and 3) to make business better by enabling more women to succeed.

When we’re busy it can be easy to see volunteering as a drain on our time. But, for me, the personal and professional benefits have been life-altering.

Susan Room is a former corporate leader, turned professional coach. She was writing in support of #InternationalVolunteerDay on Thursday 5th December 2019. One of the rare few qualified to provide voice and executive coaching, her unique blend of experience now sees her helping others feel, look and sound confident – positively improving their professional performance and happiness at work.

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