The Vital Role of Volunteers

Why is it that HR pays attention to volunteer experience on applicants' resumes, but many HR professionals don't think to volunteer themselves?

By Susan R. Meisinger

On a recent trip to Washington, I was reminded that spring is a special time in our nation's capital, and not just because of the beautiful blooms of the annual Cherry Blossom Festival.

It's special because it's also the time that many organizations, including the Society for Human Resource Management, hold their legislative conferences. Trade associations and professional societies arrange for members to be briefed on public policy issues of concern to their particular industry or profession. Attendees often visit their Senators and Representatives -- or their staffs -- acting as citizen lobbyists for the day.

There's no way that members of Congress can have a deep knowledge or understanding of every industry or profession, so these constituent meetings are important. They provide visitors with an opportunity to educate their legislator in the hopes that the legislator will make better policy decisions in the future.

As I've said here before, I'm a public policy junkie, so I always loved attending the SHRM legislative conference. But one of the things I loved about it was, over the years, watching the professional development of attendees who had volunteered to be legislative representatives for their chapter or state. I watched them learn what the best strategies were to influence their elected representatives, and how to get a commitment on votes on pending legislation. I watched them learn the value of building a relationship with elected representatives, because if they had a relationship -- even they weren't able to gain a commitment on a particular bill -- they might be able to do so another day on another bill or issue.

Of course, it should come as no surprise that I'm a big fan of volunteering. Volunteers are the lifeblood of most non-profits, and I know from my own experience at SHRM that, without volunteers, the organization wouldn't be as successful as it is.

But I think that we sometimes overlook the value that volunteering provides to the person who volunteers. HR pays attention to volunteer experience on the resumes we review -- we know it's a plus -- but many of the same HR professionals don't think to volunteer themselves. They don't look for ways to dedicate their own time and energy to volunteer activities for their own professional development; for their own resumes.

Consider what I saw with the volunteers who served as legislative representatives. I'm pretty sure that those who became more skillful at influencing legislators also became more skillful at influencing colleagues at work.

I'm not suggesting that HR professionals should only volunteer in the legislative arena, or only in an HR-related field, although there are lots of non-profit organizations that are in desperate need of HR expertise.

I am suggesting that HR professionals should look for volunteer opportunities that can help you develop professionally and become a better leader.

Volunteer to help build a network that might prove helpful if and when you're ready for a company or career change. We all know that your resume is more likely to be acted on if the recipient is someone in your network; someone who actually knows you.

Volunteer to help build skills and gain experience. Sometimes, it's just easier to develop the skills without co-workers or supervisors realizing that you need some help. Help another organization develop a strategic plan or business plans, and the experiential learning you'll have will make you more prepared and confident when you have to do it in your own workplace.

Volunteer to gain experience in areas you hope to need in the future. Sitting on a non-profit board is a great way to gain a deeper understanding of how boards operate, and to appreciate some of the nuances and group dynamics that can come into play. And if that board works with the non-profit's HR director, all the better. You'll gain valuable experience that will help you appreciate and anticipate what your own company's board may expect from HR.

Volunteering to gain planning and budgeting experience. Help an organization plan a major event. Not because it will help you do a better job planning an office picnic, but because you'll gain experience in planning, budgeting and working with people you may not know and have no authority over. And if you're put in charge, so much the better: Skills you gain in supervising and training other volunteers -- people who work for nothing -- will certainly be useful when you supervise or train paid employees.

Volunteer to gain visibility. I once had a SHRM legislative rep call me, seeking information on a pending environmental bill. Apparently, her CEO had noticed that she was always current on HR public policy matters that might impact the company, so he called on her when he had a concern about an environmental bill. Her volunteer role had given her visibility in the company and the CEO, as well as providing a network to tap into to get help finding the answer (me).

And before you mutter to yourself, "But I don't have time . . . ," consider research published in Psychological Science, which found that, when people volunteer, it actually makes them feel like they have more time in their days.

And who doesn't want more time?

Susan R. Meisinger, former president and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management, is an author, speaker and consultant on human resource management. She is on the board of directors of the National Academy of Human Resources.


May 8, 2017
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