Four Reasons Volunteering Builds Career Success

In a world where many of us are already struggling to maintain some semblance of work/school-life balance, it is certainly challenging to spend your spare time working for free. While many people pursue volunteer opportunities purely for altruistic reasons, volunteering can also be a pragmatic and practical step for career development, which should appeal to even the most selfish of us. Here are four reasons volunteerism is an important part of your career.

Develops Your Skills

In university and college you’re paying to learn. Think of volunteering as a free program that has the potential to become a full time (paid!) gig. A volunteer opportunity, such as an unpaid internship or weekend service at your local community garden, will expose you to the hands-on requirements and the day-to-day environment of a job. It will force you to learn new skills, such as how to speak and write professionally or work on a team to achieve a strategic purpose and help you sharpen existing skills, such as researching, building websites or giving presentations, all without any necessary long-term commitment or stressful expectations.

Volunteering is the solution to the Catch 22 that so many young professionals face: they don’t have the skill to climb to the next level of their career, but can’t learn the skill unless they get the new job. Volunteering can offer a way out of this frustrating cycle. You can learn the skills on your own time and still help your organization.

Build Your Network

Most volunteer positions are connected to organizations with multiple employees or with other volunteers who may share some of your common interests and/or career aspirations. A volunteer position can be great for connecting you with the powers-that-be, who may one day be looking hire, know someone who’s hiring are willing to provide a helpful letter of reference. Your volunteering also gives you a platform to connect with people who share your interest in the organization and could one day support your career aspirations. Finally, once you’ve established your network, treat it like a puppy in need of lots of attention. Don’t ignore your new contacts once you finish your volunteer term. Stay in touch through social media (LinkedIn is better than Facebook), email or coffee meetings. Cultivate and nurture your network and it will positively influence your career direction in the future.

Volunteer Like a Pro

Volunteerism provides you with a wonderful way to demonstrate your work ethic. From an employer’s perspective this allows them to test out a potential employee without having to formally hire them. That’s why it’s important to treat your volunteer position like you’d treat a job. Do what you say you will do. Arrive promptly (or early) and try to add value wherever possible. Be proactive rather than reactive in your role. Finally, make sure you keep a smile on your face throughout your volunteer tenure. At the end of the day, your ability to get along with co-workers and your leaders will be a defining way you’ll be remembered.

Be Humble and Know Your Role

Many people are graduating from high school, colleges and universities with great education, but with few skills. Being able to think is important – especially the higher you climb –but when you are starting out, what is most important is being able to do stuff. When I worked in politics we frequently had volunteers approach us interested in writing policy. When I worked for a public relations firm, occasionally we’d have interns who were disheartened about being assigned the tedious task of media monitoring. They wanted to conduct strategic communications planning or crisis management. In each scenario the volunteers had unrealistic expectations about the value of their skills. Generally, organizations won’t put great responsibility on the shoulders of untested workers (let alone volunteers). That being said, by maintaining a positive attitude and treating your volunteer work as a learning opportunity to sharpen skills you can gain a huge amount of experience.

By treating your volunteer work for what it is, serious business that will inform your career, and mapping out what you want to learn (and who at your organization you’ll learn it from) you will develop more professional competencies than you ever could by pulling an all-nighter.

The Gift of Time

No, this isn’t a post about one of the greatest movies of 2011, In Time starring Justin Timberlake, which totally should’ve been called Justin Time starring Justin Timberlake, by the way. This post is about holiday giving.

The other day, my Superphone shared with me this video from The Project For Awesome 2011′s “How to Give Back” campaign on the YouTube:

I didn’t really get the “breasts on the homepage” comment because I’m not a regular follower of this initiative, but I very much enjoyed and appreciated the meaningful message of giving time instead of money and/or things as we give back during the holiday season.

Sure, “psychologists” and “professors” and “experts” will tell you that spending money the right way can make you happier, at least that’s an argument recently posed by the The Age’s Ross Gittins. Further, over the last month I’ve been engaged by no fewer than 20 of my Facebook friends as they crowdsource their projected holiday donations with questions like “Which charity should get my donation this Christmas?” or “What organization do you give to during the holidays?”

We know that holiday consumption and the spending that feeds it is addictive. While happiness is also addictive, I’ll argue that spending as giving is not the most efficient, rewarding or meaningful way to give back in our neighbourhoods, cities and regions. Giving time to your community makes a positive difference in these much more impactful ways:

1. Experiential Learning – you see the results of your work as it unfolds before you and supports/inspires the people who you’re helping.

2. Fiscal Responsibility – we spend more financial capital than we have while spending very little of our collective and individual social capital; giving time instead of cash addresses both of these challenges.

3. Volunteering is addictive – the biggest problem with holiday giving (whether it’s money or time) is that it only happens during the holidays; unfortunately, poverty, addiction, abuse, displacement, and many other anti-community problems happen year-round. Yes, giving time is, in many ways, harder than cutting a check; however, once you spend time on the front lines of community problem-solving and difference-making it’s much harder to stop doing it.

So there it is. Thank you for your time (during this holiday season and beyond).

Masthead photo courtesy of Lester Public Library

Charity and Community – Hand Outs and Cheapskates

I was just approached in the office to buy a raffle ticket for $10, three for $25.  The prize was a trinket that I’d never keep.  The reason for the raffle: a guy who works here was just diagnosed with prostate cancer and was headed into surgery today.  One of his friends/co-workers was collecting money for his family, just a bit extra to cover take-out and gas back and forth to the hospital.  It probably won’t amount to much, but it’ll help.  I’m sure it’ll be really, really appreciated too.

It’s Movember this month and I didn’t carve a moustache from my beard.  I probably should have and now feel a stab of guilt for not raising money for finding a cure.  Prostate cancer.  Life’s great kick in the balls. I’m really lucky; I haven’t been forced to think about cancer very much.  All my friends who have had cancer have survived and are still surviving.  Invincibility is still attached to my aging youth.  But cancer, or whatever fate, is out there and none of us know if or when we’ll have to face our battle.  Will your community be there for you when it happens?  Is giving now just flimsy good-karma insurance?

When I consider the raffle, my mind moves to the big campaigns – the posters and runs, pink ribbons and testimonies from survivors.  All this to encourage society to search for a cure.  I’ll admit to not giving as much money as I should.  Logically, I know how important it is.  Emotionally, I feel for the millions of people this affects.  But when I see the campaign by the Canadian Cancer Society I don’t feel connected.  I don’t know the people.

Ah, and there it is.

There’s the problem.

My problem is the problem so many face.  We don’t know people in Mogadishu who are struggling with drought and joblessness.  I don’t know anyone in the favelas of Sao Paulo either who don’t have clean running water.  There are so many people in need, so many folks on the street in urban Canada, struggling communities in our north…the list is overwhelming.  Who gets my charity dollars and how much should I give?

I’ve chosen to buy the raffle ticket this time.  I felt moved to do so.  It was direct.  It was for a guy who works with us.  If I didn’t give, I don’t think I’d be doing justice to my community.  It was real.

But what of the others?  Where do I go for these answers?  I feel like I’m there, ready to give.  Now what?

Awesome masthead photo by derekp

Manyana en Bolivia

[Editor's note: Stephanie Bowen is radical smothered in awesomesauce. She's a great writer. And she's a generous person. One particular example of her exceptional verb-against-noun-pushing lies below. Thanks very, very much for sharing your experiential learning of the Bolivian community, Steph. We're happy to have you home soon!]

In the beginning, there was trekking

“Whatever the present moment contains, accept it as if you had chosen it. Always work with it, not against it. Make it your friend and ally, not you enemy. This will transform your whole life.”
-Eckhart Tolle

Yesterday I spent 8 hours on a transport truck, wedged between sacks of potatoes, bales of corn, chickens, farmers and their children. I had been trekking through the Maragua Crater with a stellar group of guides and volunteers from Condor Trekkers (my ethical tourism volunteer gig) when wooziness set in. By the time we stopped for the day I had a spiking fever, and by morning it was determined that catching a camion home was my only course of action.

While disappointed to miss out on waterfalls, hot springs, sleeping under the stars and good company, I was relieved that in four short hours I would be back in the comfort of my little apartment.

Given my luck with transport, I´m sure you can guess where is this is going.

When I climbed aboard the camion (ostensibly a pickup truck with 5-foot walls around its bed, used for all manner of transport between country and city), a Bolivian guide named Henrry explained to the passengers that I was very sick. When I smacked my head on the overhead scaffolding, he explained that I was also very tall. My co-passengers nodded and smiled sympathetically, unsure which was a worse affliction. I laid my newly aching head on my pack and tried to ignore the obvious bad omen.

Crowded Camion

Camions are notorious for their cramped, dusty quarters, death-defying driving, and cheapness, with trips costing little more than a dollar. They’re also the perfect metaphor for Bolivia in general: inexpensive, inefficient, surrounded by beautiful scenery and a total test of patience.

The trip from Arapampa, where we’d slept, to Sucre, where I am currently residing, is a mere 65km, which translates to roughly 4 hours of bumpy driving. For no discernable reason, however, that Sunday driver elected to circle the same loop of the crater for four hours before even approaching the perilous switchbacks that would take us into the city. With every stop, new 50lb bags of crops were piled under, beside, and sometimes on top of me as I attempted to steal some precious moments of sleep.

The trip might have caused fond memories of my Mexican highway nightmare had it not been for another Bolivian staple: kindness. After an hour of dodging bags of crops and banging my lolling head against the truck’s walls, I was offered sugar cane to chew by a farmer, to help clam my churning stomach.

Perilous country-to-city switchbacks

When the truck came to an unexpected stop at noon due to a car rally on the mountain, an elderly lady gestured for me to sit beside her in the vehicle´s limited shade. Stumbling awkwardly over bodies and livestock, I curled myself around a bag of potatoes next to my adopted grandmother. As if it were the most natural thing in the world, she gently stroked my hair as I drifted off to sleep.

Beyond the camion walls

An hour later when the obstruction finally cleared, I was woken by the soft cooing of fellow passengers, who grinned as I returned to my place in the sun.

I don’t mean to romanticize my experience. It was hot, dusty, smelly and rough. Dirt roads, virtually no shocks and no seats to speak of do not make for a comfortable 8 hours in any vehicle, let alone one piled 60 deep with bodies. I arrived at my apartment at 5:30 at night, coated in a layer of grime and ready to collapse. Like so many experiences I’ve had thus far in this wonderfully bizarre country, my journey home had been fraught with confusion and discomfort. But the trip was also a testament to the calm stoicism and warmth of the people here.

While in Sucre I’ve befriended a host of lovely, quirky folks, one of whom is an inspiring young woman in the throes of opening a restaurant. She attended one of the world’s finest hospitality institutions, is passionate about healthy, well prepared food, and wants her restaurant to bridge some fairly obvious gaps between locals and travelers. When she arrived in Sucre she was armed with an airtight business plan and had a location all but secured. 6 weeks later, she’s finally been able to nail down some of the specifics of renting her space.

Nothing in Bolivia happens quickly. In fact, nothing in Bolivia happens today. When enquiring about business dealings, administrative protocol, transport schedules, or the cessation of near-daily political protests, the answer is always manyana – tomorrow. Want to rent a vacant space and open a restaurant? We’ll look at the contracts manyana. Need a residents’ ID card? It’ll be ready manyana. Want to know when you’ll at long last be able to disembark from the flatbed of a truck and dead faint into your sickbed? Probably manyana.

Perilous Switchbacks

It can be frustrating to leave a home that prizes efficiency to a fault, and attempt to go about your business in the Land of Manyana. It’s hard to get a lot done here (witness the complete cessation of this blog during my 5 weeks tenure in Sucre). But the upside of all of that inefficiency is that it’s hard to get a lot done here. When things move slowly, so do you. And when you move slowly the world can be a far more interesting place.

Curled up on that bag of potatoes, I realized that my apartment might as well be in Toronto for the amount of time it was going to take me to get there. Bit by bit, the anxious longing I often feel for impossible outcomes ebbed away, and when it did something remarkable happened. I was finally able to feel the relief of the cool breeze that was sweeping through the camion. I cracked open my fever-swollen eyes and stared at the rolling green hills and blue sky beyond the truck’s walls. I marvelled at the comfort of a stranger’s weathered old hands sweeping the hair off of my sweaty forehead with all the gentleness of my mother. And I was overwhelmed with gratefulness for that improbable moment.

In Bolivia, where everything is happening tomorrow, you might as well enjoy what you´re dealt today.

Surviving the Filler Month

I have to admit, November is not my favourite month. It’s dark, gloomy and rainy. It does not have the crisp air and the brilliant colours of Fall, nor does it offer the magical snow and cheer of December. It’s the filler of the seasons, the sad and gloomy middle child, the second book in a trilogy that should have just been skipped.

So, what is to be done? Should one give in to the gloom and muddle through the month, waiting for December to arrive while mourning the end of October? Fear not, my Seasonal-Affective-Disorder friends! I’d like to propose some key things to get you through the month – and also hear your tried-and-true ways of keeping your spirits up as the cold November rain pours down.

Getting those receptors coated, one bowl at a time ...

Getting those receptors coated, one bowl at a time ...

First up, soup. A fresh, warm bowl of soup can do wonders. The science is still out on why this is, but I suspect it has something to do with the ability of blended, warm vegetables to stimulate serotonin uptake and coat receptors, thus increasing mood (and, as we all know, everything we say here at the Gumboot is always verified and evidence-based). Whether the effects are nature- or nurture- based, there’s just something about soup that soothes the soul. Soup is also versatile, and allows you to let your creative juices flow in the kitchen. There are a myriad of varieties, and most can be made using seasonal, local vegetables and adapted to your personal taste preferences. My absolute favorite at the moment is Carrot Parsnip Ginger soup. I very much invite you to try it out.

Use this handy Movember style guide to find your style!

Use this handy guide to find the Movember style that's right for you!

Second, get involved! With the weather getting colder, think about donating some time volunteering in your community or sorting through and donating extra clothes or blankets you may have to a homeless shelter – often, awareness of the need for such items only increases around the holidays. New Fountain Emergency Shelter is one such shelter that accepts such donations. Another great cause for the men-folk to get involved in is Movember, a month-long celebration of the moustache, highlighting men’s health issues (specifically prostate cancer). Across Canada, there are already 25, 174 registrants who have raised over a million dollars towards prostate cancer research so far!

Third, stay active. It’s easy to stop being active when the weather turns nasty. Make a commitment to yourself to get out and be active – a surefire way to keep your mood in check, and keep illness at bay. It might be a good time to try out an indoor activity you’ve always wanted to try, like rock climbing, yoga, or swimming.

And lastly, if all else fails, all you will need is three crucial items: a good book, a comfy blanket (not the one you’re donating), and a cup of tea.

So, there you have it. My top picks on how to get through November. What are yours?

Serving our Community: from Obamania to Rwanda

Leave it to Obama. In tough economic times, when citizens are struggling to make ends meet what does the President do? He pushes through bi-partisan legislation embracing free labour. Yeah, I know managers and directors and CEOs can’t afford to pay their staff, but, come one! Basically, he’s mandating that people work for nothing. That’s right. No wages. I don’t know what kind of perverted, crazy voodoo socialism this guy is tryi-

What? The bill is about volunteering and community service? It’s a good thing? National Service? Encouraging Americans to push aside petty, partisan values and work together to make their communities better places? Passed into law just 22 days after being proposed? Wow. That’s pretty cool.

Sorry about that, folks. I got a little carried away there. And, for the record, I like Obama. A lot. Not just because of all the hope, either. Or because of his sincerity. Or because of his amazing oratory skills that inspire millions – nay, billions - of people around the world. Mostly, I like Obama because he collaborates with Spider-man and Abraham Lincoln to create amazing, progressive and world-changing community-service legislation that does so much to make America the leader that so many people around the world want it to be. Or so my sources tell me.

Moving on…

Friends, we’re at the end of National Volunteer Week! On Tuesday, April 21 President Obama signed the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, which “reauthorizes and expands national service programs administered by the Corporation for National Service…[and seeks to engage] over four million Americans in results-driven service each year.” On April 22, the Corporation reported that AmeriCorps received 17,038 online applications in March, nearly triple the number from 2008. From Senior Citizens to students, from NGO management to service learning initiatives, the Serve America Act provides millions of dollars that, according to Corporation Board Chair, Alan Solomont, “…will help unleash a powerful new wave of service and civic action to help tackle our nation’s toughest challenges.”

From Millennials to Baby Boomers, Obama has people moving. And, clearly, for the patriotic, narcissistic, spiritual, community-minded, and apathetic alike it’s the stuff of inspiration.

So what are we up to in Canada? Well, my grandma, Betty, just got invited to a volunteer lunch as a thanks for all the service she does for the Senior community in the Comox Valley. And about 21 of my students here at the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business are volunteering with the Strathcona Business Improvement Association on three service-learning projects that will help expand the community’s “Green Zone.” And speaking of talented young people, a few weeks ago, whilst in Toronto, I met a young man named Billy Strachan, who has embraced Social Entrepreneurship with his not-for-profit A Day for Africa. Check it out!

Those are some micro-examples. What about pan-Canadian initiatives and our general approach to volunteering as well as giving? According to a 2004 report called, I kid you not, The Canada Survey of Giving, Volunteering and Participating, 85% of Canadians collectively give annually nearly nine billion dollars (average donation of $400). Religious organizations receive about 45% of these donations. About 45% of Canadians over the age of 15 volunteer for about 168 hours per year, and their total contributions amount to two billion hours, or the equivalent of one million full-time jobs. The top 10% of volunteers, though, contribute to 52% of all volunteering in Canada. We help each other without going through registered charitable organizations, too. About 83% of Canadians reported helping others who did not live in their own household with a variety of tasks and projects (shovelling snow, car repairs, cleaning, gardening, painting, cooking). Needless to say, we’re good at getting involved. But we can do better. And should do more.

And, sometimes, you can easily combine volunteering and helping others with spectacular adventures. Speaking of adventures, this one time, I went to Rwanda and helped organize anEast African youth employment conference. I also played on a basketball team (can you find me in the photo?). Recently, my Rwandan brother Edouard Umunyarwanda (on my left, your right) let me know about a project the team is launching called Safeball. The program is meant to build community through basketball, dance and song as well as educate youth who are drawn to the celebration about HIV/AIDS, drug and alcohol abuse, physical violence, post-genocide reconciliation, and safe, healthy living. When he introduced me to the idea, Edouard said, “we needed something original, big, and new and also something that would always makes youth think about being safe.” My friend, you’re there and you are about to inspire a lot of people to help you.

So, we’ve gone on a service-related journey from the Comox Valley to Washington, DC to Vancouver to Kigali and back again. And we’ve learned a few cool ways to build community through service. And we’ve heard some stories that are pretty darn inspirational. So, what next? Well, if your from The Gumboot’s neighbourhood, start by hitting up and see how you can get involved.

As for who has a better plan to unite its citizens through service, well, readers, I’ll leave that to you. Both the Canadian and American models are wide in scope and ambition, but, when it comes to being nationally inspired/motivated, I think Canadians might fall a bit short. Or, hey, maybe we’re so good at helping that we don’t need to be inspired to go out and do good things.

Whatever the case. There’s no better time than right now to get involved. And, while you’re helping, remember to have fun with it. After all, smiles are totally contagious!

Thanks for the memories.


The Engaging Workplace

Believe it or not, people, most Canadians spends more time at (or on the way to/from) work than at home with family. It’s not just the actual 35 or 37.5 or 40 or 70 hours at work with colleagues to think about, either. There’s also the commuting (some of you out there spend three hours a day in your car or sleepily standing during a bus/skytrain combo-trip). You also might grocery shop or play a sport or volunteer somewhere outside the home, away from your family, significant other or cat/dog/iguana. I remember when I told a colleague of mine this statistic a few years ago. She wasn’t happy. And she became a little depressed.

So, what’s the point of depressing you? Well, when it comes to “career development” and “community building” at work, I’m a bit of an expert. I’ll preface the pending “expertise” by acknowledging my ongoing adventures in lifelong learning as well as my adherence to the old adage: “the first thing you need to know about being smart is that you’re stupid.” I won’t pretend to know everything and history shows that I’m pretty stupid, but, as The Gumboot professes, our team has some good ideas…from everywhere.

As a Career Educator at the University of British Columbia, my work involves, well, preparing students for work. I also work on a team with 20 fantastic colleagues. So, given the above concept (we spend more time per week at work than anywhere else) it is important to consider how we can employ this professional and social space as a vehicle for positively impacting the community…and ourselves!

First, there are a lot of dysfunctional workplaces out there. Trust me, I’ve seen storylines from The Office reproduced in real time in real life. I know a guy who knows a guy who began his career in a place where, for his first four months on the job, every staff meeting ended with someone crying. It was like The Office, except instead of humour there was only twice as much awkwardness

But I digress…

My point is that one of the ways that the aforementioned semi-dysfunctional team came together was when the boss organized a volunteer opportunity with the good folks at Habitat for Humanity. As the story goes, the job was to build a fence at one of the project houses in the city. And build they did! Whether it was a “good” or “straight” or “well built” fence is irrelevant, but it certainly brought their little workplace community together in a positive way. And it could’ve gone just the opposite way, as hammers, nails and a bevy of sharp power tools were all at arms-reach.

Second, let’s move from a team-based-project bringing the workplace together and take it to the next level. Recently, I was asked by my boss to spearhead a Christmas Community Engagement project for our office. We chose to head to the Salvation Army’s Belkin House (talk to Eva, the Volunteer Coordinator if you want to help out) and made dinner and wrapped presents. This was a different kind of community-building. Our team is solid and amazing, hardly dysfunctional. We were given an opportunity to engage our surrounding community and make an impact as a group. There were three main outcomes:

Outcometh the first: it’s like when people try to “make a difference” in Africa – we went in trying to help people less fortunate than us, and ended up getting more out of the experience than we ever gave. Helping out makes you feel great as individuals and as a team.
Outcometh the second: we made people smile. So many community-outreach programs succeed and fail on the backs and in the good hearts of volunteers. This was one of the successes, and we genuinely made a difference – albeit little and tiny in the grand scheme of things – in our community.
Outcometh the third: ripple effects. Since taking part in this project on December 8, 2008, many of us have gone back to volunteer again. All of us are on the volunteer call list. And we are currently in the process of building and sustaining an ongoing partnership with Belkin House. Not only that, we have become leaders, as other groups at UBC have approached us asking to join our effort. Because when you help people out, man, it’s contageous.

From a career education perspective, being the office “philanthropist” or “helper” puts you in an excellent position. Helping others – positively engaging your community – is hard to say no to.* Done well and chalked full of smiles and thank-yous, these kinds of projects are the sort of thing that a new employee can take on to showcase their leadership and organizational skills as well as their unpretentious commitment to social justice. Inspiring others to be the change they want to see in the world is, after all, a pretty cool feeling.

To summarize, think about getting your office together to positively engage your community. Whether it’s serving a meal, organizing a food/toy-drive event, providing free-expertise to those who need it, or “building” a fence, the impact you make will bring your team closer together while making a whole buncha people smile. Getting involved is easy (Vancouver’s not even close to being a city of equal opportunity) – just check out for more information.

Now is a great time to help out. The holiday season inspires a lot of people to volunteer in soup kitchens, community centres, not-for-profits, shelters, and the food bank. The problem is that people are poor all year long, not just at Christmas. And the economic downturn is hurting the downtrodden more than anyone else. Especially in Vancouver. Community-engagement needs to be sustained all year long. So think about how you – and your team at the office – can make the most of your time together change the world today. You might even change yourselves and change your team-dynamic while you’re at it. And it’s a good feeling!

Thanks. And as you get your colleagues together on a volunteer project, remember: have fun with it!


*John’s Humour-in-the-Workplace Tip: if you want to be helpful and controversial, take a Colbert or Swiftian tact and challenge disinterest and/or cynicism with comments like, “well, I kinda think you should help out, [insert colleague's name here]. Can I ask you a question? Why exactly do you hate poor people?” I can’t stress enough how important it is to have a good relationship with your colleague/target as well as fantastic communication/backpeddling skills if you’re going to try this out. Make sure they have a sense of humour, get irony and, most importantly, make sure you have a sense of humour, too!