I believe it is important to advise and mentor young professionals when asked. Early in my career, I benefited greatly from the generosity and advice of mentors, and I do my best to repay that favor today by sharing any wisdom I have gained with the next generation. One piece of advice that I consistently offer is to get involved in a not-for-profit organization as a way to develop the skills that are foundational to a successful business career. I have joined several not-for-profit boards, have volunteered in different capacities, and have grown from each experience.
Pay It Forward
The obvious benefit of volunteering at not-for-profits is that you are giving back to a good cause by staying engaged in your community. You also feel a sense of pride in the fact that you are sharing your time and talents without asking to be paid. What most people miss, just as I did before I got involved, is that they can receive a lot in return in the form of personal and professional development.
Learn How to do More with Less
Most not-for-profits are resource constrained. Volunteers learn the important lesson that spending more money is not always the only or best option. They must deal more effectively with limited options due to a lack of resources and become more creative in developing solutions.
Optimize an Imperfect Environment
Most not-for-profits are not run like businesses and do not have the typical infrastructure you would find in a for-profit organization. Not-for-profits historically have not kept great records, collected much data, or put emphasis on financial reporting (that is now changing in most!). This type of situation teaches volunteers and others to make decisions with imperfect or insufficient information. It also encourages them to gather their own data from alternate sources, and to communicate with others to come to an informed decision.
Develop Business Skills
Most people at not-for-profits are volunteers and while there is a hierarchy of authority, the element of not being paid makes that authority rather unclear at times. Professionals in these situations learn to use the power of ideas, negotiation and persuasion to build a coalition around whatever plan they believe best for the organization. Collaborators don’t just need to agree with your idea, but then also commit to willingly giving their time and talent to put the idea or plan into action.
Do the Right Kind of Networking
Finally, not-for-profits require people to interact and to improve their communication skills. People who volunteer together often are bound only by their shared interest in the cause supported, often little else. In for-profit organizations, it is not uncommon for candidates to complete rounds of interviews, designed to eliminate people who don’t have the desired skill set or fit the culture. Not-for-profits do not have that luxury. Getting people to volunteer in the first place is a challenge, and therefore they need to cast a wider net. They often end up with a more diverse set of opinions and life experiences. In this environment, a person has the opportunity to improve his or her listening and overall communication skills to connect with fellow volunteers.
Please consider volunteering. The not-for-profit will undoubtedly benefit from your involvement and, I can promise, you will become a more capable and ultimately successful for-profit executive as a result.