The joys and benefits of volunteering

This afternoon, I took part in an STC panel discussion about volunteering — how to volunteer, where opportunities exist, and so on. (A recording of the webinar will be made available; once it is, I’ll post a link to it.)

Those of you who know me well know how involved I’ve been with volunteering. To name a few, I’ve spoken for SQL Saturday and Data Saturday conferences. I’m part of the leadership team for my local SQL user group. I’m a section leader, board member, and secretary for the symphonic concert band in which I play. I play the piano for a local church. I even serve as a mentor for my fraternity and my alma mater. I lend my talents to a wide variety of groups and organizations, and it’s among some of the most rewarding endeavors in which I take part.

Why volunteer? You rarely, if ever, get paid for doing volunteer work, after all. Well, at least you don’t get paid with money. That said, you get paid in a number of ways that don’t directly involve money.

Let’s start with the satisfaction that you’ve gotten something done. I take part in a number of activities. All of these activities need behind-the-scenes work to keep them viable. Who’s going to do the work? After all, most of these positions are not paid, full-time opportunities, and tasks have to be done, including (but not limited to) organizing meetings, finding meeting or event space, scheduling, publicizing events, taking care of participants, paying any necessary bills or fees, and so on. Someone has to do the work. More often than not, that work is performed by volunteers.

Do you want to learn something new, or gain a new skill? Volunteering is a great way to do it. These groups all need tasks to be done, and volunteering is a relatively low-risk way to get experience with those tasks. It becomes a win-win for everyone; you gain new experience, and a group gets their tasks done.

That said, keep in mind that once you take on a task, you also take on a responsibility. Groups look to make sure work is performed, and once you volunteer to do that work, they are counting on you to make sure it gets done. Even if you’re not getting paid to perform the work, any volunteer opportunity should be treated with the same responsibility and respect as a job.

As with any job, you might struggle if you’ve never done it before or are unsure as to what to do. Treat it as you would any job. Use resources at your disposal (e.g. the internet) to get it done. Don’t be afraid to ask for help if you’re struggling. And don’t be afraid to say no. Volunteering should be a rewarding, even fun, experience. If you find that you’re frustrated or overwhelmed, don’t be afraid to either turn down the opportunity or pass it off to someone who can get it done. It isn’t worth the stress.

I mentioned above that volunteers don’t get directly paid with money. Indirectly, however, is another story! If you’re looking for work experience, volunteer work looks great on a resume! Maybe you built and maintained a group’s website, managed their finances, taught constituents, organized events, or served as an officer. Even if you weren’t paid to do them, it counts as work experience, which is something that appeals to potential employers.

And if you’re looking to meet people and expand your network, volunteering is a great way to do it. By volunteering, you interact with people in whatever activities you’re involved, which expands your network. Speaking personally, I’ve met many people and made many friends from my involvement with SQL Saturday and other related opportunities. This involvement has helped me to grow, both professionally and personally.

Additionally, when you work with others, you learn people skills, including teamwork, collaboration, communication, delegating tasks, leadership, and so on. And if you feel any trepidation about your skill sets, these people skills might just improve your confidence as well.

So if you’re looking to learn new things, gain more experience, and make new friends, consider volunteering. The rewards you reap can be life-changing.

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You don’t have to be in a management position to be a leader

For years, I used to think that in order for me to become a leader, I would need to land a management position of some type. Indeed, for a long time, our culture taught us that you needed to obtain some kind of leadership or management position in order to be a leader. So I strived for climbing the corporate ladder, trying to get myself into the upper ranks and getting into a position where I could be the one calling most (but not necessarily all) of the shots. I even contemplated pursuing an MBA (and, to a small extent, I am still entertaining the idea).

Now that I’m older (and, hopefully, wiser), I no longer have such ambitions. At this point in my career, I am happy where I am, management position be damned. Climbing the corporate ladder is no longer a priority for me (that said, if such an opportunity arises, it doesn’t necessarily mean I would turn it down, but it would depend on the opportunity). If I ever haven an opportunity to be promoted, that’d be great, but it is no longer a priority for me, and if it never happens, I won’t lose sleep over it.

This seems to correspond with a change in my mindset as I advance in my career (and my age). When I was younger and more brash, I wanted to be the center of attention, the rock star. But now that I’m older and have some more experience under my belt, being the rock star is no longer a priority.

What I discovered is that I very much get just as much of a high by helping someone else become the rock star. I frequently take part in mentoring opportunities — through my alma mater, my fraternity, my job, or my extracurricular activities. Whenever I see someone struggling with something, and if I am able to assist (which I’m not always able to do), I’ll offer my advice or my hand. And I get a great deal of satisfaction whenever the light bulb goes off in my student’s or mentee’s head, and (s)he suddenly says, “oh, NOW I get it!”

I was reminded of this last Saturday when I spoke at Data Geeks Saturday. I signed into the virtual room in which I was doing my own presentation, and I caught the tail end of Mark Runyon‘s presentation titled “Elevating Your Career into IT Leadership.” I had seen his presentation before — it was either at PASS Summit or another SQL Saturday — I don’t remember which — but one of the takeaways was that there are many ways to become a leader, and it doesn’t necessarily involve becoming a manager.

There are many ways to be a leader. Be a mentor or a teacher. Volunteer to take the reigns whenever an opportunity arises. If you see someone struggling, help him or her out. Leadership takes many forms. You don’t necessarily have to climb the ladder to attain it.