Sunday, October 7, 2012

Lend a Hand to Get Ahead

Georgia Tech Alumni Magazine Volume 88, Number 3 (August 2012)

I'm thrilled that my alma mater asked me to submit an article for the latest edition of the Georgia Tech Alumni Magazine.  The following is my advice to professionals regarding volunteering as professional development.  What do you think?

In my work as the CEO of Girls Incorporated of Greater Atlanta, people often approach me requesting help finding mentors, making connections and seeking new job opportunities. I have one consistent piece of advice for them: volunteer.

Why? It’s no secret that the benefits of serving your community extend far beyond helping people and places in need. Volunteering encourages you to hone existing skill sets, develop new ones and foster connections that strengthen and nourish your community—and those skills and connections may prove to be valuable assets in your professional life, too.

If you are currently employed, it’s important to make the most of the time and energy you spend volunteering. Are there areas of your professional life you’re looking to improve or additional skills that would benefit your work? (Your workplace performance reviews may serve as a roadmap here.) Seek out volunteer opportunities tailored to your interests and strengths, especially causes or organizations with training programs—think of it as free professional development.

You also want to consider where your existing skills may be of help. If you work in IT, for example, consider lending your know-how to a local nonprofit looking to improve their technology plan.
For those looking to make a career change, volunteering can give you a virtually risk-free chance to explore your interests in other fields—kind of like a grown-up internship. Years ago I thought I wanted to be an event planner, so I jumped at the chance to chair a major fundraising gala for a local nonprofit. But after managing that and multiple other events, I realized that event planning was not for me. Thank goodness I had the chance to “try it before you buy it” through volunteering. But in other cases, volunteering may confirm your desire to make a big career change.

If you are currently unemployed, there may be no better time to volunteer. Take advantage of this opportunity to develop skill sets relevant to your career goals, keep existing skills fresh, make connections with other volunteers that might be in your field and potentially set your resume apart in the competitive job market.

That’s another thing: Along with updating your professional resume, be sure to post your significant volunteer roles on your LinkedIn profile. Not only does it build your positive online brand, but it also adds valuable depth to your overall career snapshot. And take the extra step of asking your volunteer managers and peers to recommend your work. As a nonprofit leader, this is something I enjoy giving back to my volunteers.

And remember, even if you’re not in the office, it’s crucial to behave professionally. On more than one occasion I’ve seen people do and say things in a volunteer capacity that I cannot imagine they would dare replicate in a business setting. Your volunteer roles and contributions are an extension of your personal brand, and a great volunteer contributor can become a sought-after resource by fellow professionals.