• January 2011

Dr. Alice Waagen Explains the Value of Strategic Volunteerism

By Dr. Alice Waagen
Founder and President
Workforce Learning

Given your busy professional and personal life, why should you and your employees volunteer?

That’s the question that I am asked whenever I bring up the topic with managers and other leaders.

My answer is always simple: Because it is good for your organization, your employees, and the world at large.

Here’s why volunteering is a good idea:

  • Professional development expands. Especially if you can’t afford to hire someone to help your staff with professional development, you help staff grow personally and professionally by having them volunteer inside an organization that will teach them something new. They’ll likely come back to your company with fresh ideas and a healthy perspective on what your firm is doing.
  • Volunteering is good for your mind, soul, and corporation. Consider the testimony that a colleague of mine recently offered: “I always wanted to make a difference in my work, help people or the organization in some meaningful way,” she said. “But the politics of my job frequently undermines the work I try to do. So I seek out ways to give back in the community. I get much greater return for my investment outside of my paying job.” My colleague is not alone.

What You Need to Know About Strategic Volunteering

I am not advocating that you and your staff should volunteer their time, energy, and resources for just any organization. In fact, your volunteer efforts should be very strategic. Here’s how.

1. Do your research.

I know from experience that choosing the wrong nonprofit to work with can be as bad as picking the wrong full-time job. So do your research and be sure that it’s one that matches the goals, skills, and schedule for yourself, your employees, and your organization. Whether it means serving on a task force for a professional association or giving time to a nonprofit organization focused on creating positive social impacts, volunteering can be a goldmine for building skills as well as professional and personal enrichment.

2. Not the right fit? Be willing to resign, and look for another option.

A few years ago I rashly committed to a volunteer assignment without doing my homework. I quickly discovered that I wasn’t comfortable with how the organization was managed, and then found out that my assignment entailed a three-year commitment. I had to resign, for I had bitten off more than I could chew. Unfortunately, all involved viewed my resignation poorly.

3. Ask the right questions.

Before jumping into another situation, I sat back and contemplated the experience. Instead of throwing out the proverbial baby with the bath water and refusing to volunteer again, I came up with a series of questions to ask before diving in.

  • “Pre-engagement” questions: What is your personal goal or objective in serving this group? How will it be met by this effort? What are the job duties? How do they match your key competencies and interests? What is the tenure of the engagement? How does one resign? Will you be expected to recruit your replacement? Will you be expected to do fundraising? How do you feel about that?
  • Throughout the engagement, ask yourself: Are your talents being fully utilized? Does the work match your pre-engagement research? Are you getting something back for your giving? Is this a valuable experience? Do you have a sense that you are making a difference? Are you making new friends? Learning new things? Having fun?
  • “Post-engagement” questions: Would you recommend this organization to a friend? And would you work for them again?

Lessons Learned

I can tell you from years of volunteering that despite any struggles with time management or personality conflicts, volunteering with a worthy cause is an important thing to do. The secret to success is to match your passions with the goals of the organization to which you choose to donate your time and expertise.

Last fall, or example, I participated in a 12-week intensive study at the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM). I had to go through a complicated acceptance process (it turns out the Smithsonian doesn’t accept just anyone) before I could even train for the opportunity.

But I did it. And beginning in January, I am proud to announce that I will be a videoconference docent, presenting interactive art-appreciation talks with schools throughout the United States using artworks from the SAAM collection.

Why was I willing to give up months of my life to train to be a volunteer? Because I have a passion for the visual arts. The only evidence of my artistic life is the mention in my bio that I have a doctoral degree in art education. And yet, as my business has grown, I have increasingly felt the need to bring the two parts of myself together.

While the training program soaked up much of my free time from September to December, I am so excited about working with this program.

What’s more, the process of training was educational in itself. Being a student again after all these years was as humbling as it was invigorating, life-changing, and inspirational. Click here to read about the lessons I learned.

In closing, I offer you this parting thought as we dive into 2011: Volunteer. Do it to find your passion, push past your boundaries, and get there and help someone. I promise, for better or worse, you will not only do some good — you will learn a lot about yourself.


About Alice Waagen

Alice Waagen, Ph.D., is president and founder of Workforce Learning LLC, a leadership development company she founded in 1997. In the past three years alone, more than 125 leaders from 24 organizations have graduated from Waagen’s unique leadership-development workshop series. Learn more about Waagen’s work at www.workforcelearning.com.

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