After a week spent down in Wanaka, helping out with the Wintergames NZ (and also talking to local businesses about getting online with a new website!), I got to thinking about the role of volunteering in business. Was there any value in it? Could businesses benefit by engaging in their local community without financial reward? Do people question the motives of businesses engaging in volunteer projects?
Businesses have long been aware of their responsibility to be community-minded. Even the most corporate, such as the big banks, are trying to show a softer side by allowing employees to take one day every calendar year to spend in charity work. The cynics may see it as a tax break couched in fuzzy marketing but it’s no doubt helping genuinely helpful people to take time out to do more in the community.
While a business may need shuffle things around to make corporate volunteering a reality, the question of why to volunteer in the first place should come from individuals, not the business itself. A business that embarks on a mission to coerce staff to volunteer without their buy-in, is really just driving down the road of disingenuous marketing, and that can seriously backfire.
But when the push to volunteer comes from individual employees that is an entirely different story, one that is far more likely to put a business in a positive light as well as fostering loyalty and goodwill from staff.
The reasons for volunteering can be many and varied (the two volunteer groups I’ve been involved with have both asked this question after the event) but in most cases it comes down to a desire to be involved, a sense of community and the potential for new experiences. Being involved with the Wintergames was a fantastic opportunity to share in a tight-knit community, brought together by a single purpose to help something that wasn’t their own. The wonderful people who make a living on the snow taught me that life is not measured in dollars and cents. I learned new skills and got a front row to some world-class sporting action.
If you’ve never volunteered before why not give it a go? Sometimes life is about trying something different, the path less traveled. You might find you get more back than you give.
But how do you get into volunteering?
What volunteering opportunities are out there?
There are plenty but sometimes you need to know where to look. I hadn’t volunteered a lot in the past but this year I’ve done two – FIFA U20 world cup here in Christchurch and the Wintergames down in Wanaka. I only found out about the Wintergames after someone I met at the FIFA world cup suggested it, and I only found out about the FIFA event because my wife volunteered for the ICC world cup. It proved that sometimes it’s a case of starting small and seeing where it leads.
One place to start is to think about any major events that are coming to your area – ask them if they have a volunteer programme. Check with registered charities – they are often involved with upcoming community activities that you can participate in on an ad hoc basis.
Post a question on Facebook or ask around at work – it only takes one person to point you in the right direction (or ask me!).
If you’ve found a volunteering opportunity the next step is to arrange your affairs to make it happen. How difficult that is will likely depend on your personal situation. You may have a good support network you can lean on to take over your regular responsibilities or work for a company that allows for volunteer time off. I’m fortunate to have a flexible work arrangement that makes it possible to fit in volunteer activities around business commitments.
The key is to plan ahead and not over-commit yourself – if you do you’ll probably find you’ll let people down and that could well put the kibosh on your volunteering efforts.
Don’t want to volunteer? Don’t!
For me personally, volunteering has been a lot of fun. I’ve enjoyed it immensely and met some great people. But it’s not for everyone. You’re in a brand new environment, you’ll have to take orders and feel like an idiot because you don’t know what you’re doing. You might have to work alongside individuals that are a little different from what you’re used to (volunteer gigs can often attract unusual types).
And you’ll likely have to make a sacrifice of your time and money.
But that’s what volunteering is about so make sure your expectations are adjusted correctly before applying. Don’t think about what you hope to gain; rather what you hope to give. That’s where the business side of things comes in – businesses have an ideal opportunity with their specialist skills to contribute to volunteer activities in unique ways – so if you’re an employer keep that in mind when staff approach you keen to help out.
Just never volunteer with ulterior motives, a hidden agenda or because you felt ‘had to’ – none of those things are good for the culture of volunteering, or for you personally or as a business.