Put Yourself to Work (Volunteer Positions)

Published by CPA Canada in CareerVision

One of the biggest challenges you might face when building your career is a plain old lack of experience.  Although you probably have taken lots of courses and have a great deal of education, in the business world, experience matters (in a huge way).  As seasoned business people will tell you, it takes years to gain the experience and professional judgement to successfully ascend the ranks, and perhaps more importantly, to know what to do when you get there.  As a result, junior level staff members are limited in terms of how far they can progress, as experience is required to effectively undertake the decision making and problem solving that is so critical in more senior roles.

When you’re in an entry or even mid-level position, it can be a challenge to have the opportunity to practice skills that are of a more managerial, decision making, or strategic nature.  Guess what?  You’re in luck!  There are many organizations that depend on volunteers to support their efforts, including board and committee members.  The benefit to you is that these types of opportunities can give you the chance to do things that you are not able to do in your current job, such as helping to plan and run events, serving on committees that analyze information and make recommendations on particular issues, or learning how a Board of Directors operates.

Volunteer positions represent a real opportunity to get involved and start increasing your knowledge, experience, and personal value.  Thus far in this series, we have considered the benefits of in-house seminars, training, & networking, professional development, work experience & assignments, and mentorship opportunities.  Here’s how to make the most of volunteer positions.

Volunteer positions

Although volunteer positions are a great way to make a contribution to your community, choose well and they can be the gift that keeps on giving.  But, in order to benefit, you have to get started.

Put yourself to work

  • Boards and committees provide the opportunity for gaining an excellent level of experience, but also involve a considerable amount of responsibility. This is not a bad thing, as long as you focus on getting involved with a strong organization that provides the real potential for getting a good level of experience (so, choose carefully!).
  • Start paying attention to the non-profit organizations in your community, as many make it known when they are seeking volunteers. Professional associations also represent a good volunteer opportunity.
  • Let others know that you have an interest in volunteering and approach organizations that are of interest to you.
  • It pays to do your due diligence before agreeing to serve; meet the principals of the organization, understand its state of affairs (including financial position), and the current issues and challenges. Inquire about Directors’ and Officers’ insurance, indemnities, and financial obligations.  Ask around to ensure that you would not be entering a “troubled organization”; if board member turnover is high, for example, there may be reason for concern.
  • Find out who else is on the particular board or committee, as it’s a good idea to surround yourself with experienced people who can transfer knowledge to others.
  • Be realistic about the amount of available time that you have and work within it. Over committing too often results in not being able to fulfill the role, and it’s better to make no impression than to make a bad impression.
  • Expect to start at an entry level (if you don’t have any previous experience), but hard work gets noticed and can create opportunities to move up to more senior roles.
  • Those with a business background (accounting, in particular) are valued for the ability to serve on Finance and Audit Committees. Given that this is typically an area of short supply, it’s a good way to get involved (and one of the easiest ways to learn about an organization is to start by understanding how and where the money flows).
  • Once you get involved, ensure that you fulfill your role well, through thorough preparation and thoughtful contribution to meetings. When you are getting started, it’s a good idea to listen carefully to become acquainted with the organization, instead of spending too much time talking.  Seek to impress, and offer to take on additional roles or tasks only once your initial responsibilities are fulfilled (and only if you have the time).
  • If things are not working out, trust your instincts and consider moving on. If you find yourself in this type of situation, it’s advisable to seek advice from someone with a good level of board experience who can assist you in making a professional exit.

Remember that the benefit to you is the opportunity to get the experience you need to move forward in your career.  It doesn’t matter that it wasn’t gained in your “day job”; what matters is that it’s on your resume and you did it!

Jenifer Bartman
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