Doing Good, Leading Better

By: Nathan Wiita and Jane Lim

“It is better to give than to receive.”

While it may be the season for giving, this concept is now a year-round phenomenon for executives in corporate America. The reasons for this trend are understandable: “giving,” or more broadly, corporate social responsibility, offers executives a great mechanism for positive community impact; building relationships; and a sense of purpose, brand development, and talent attraction.

For all the benefits to the organization and to the community, there are also positive outcomes for the individual employee. Research suggests those who volunteer outside of work report lower stress levels, better physical health, and even reduced mortality risk! “Outside the office” benefits notwithstanding, researchers have found volunteer experiences are also associated with improved performance at work and higher earnings.

And we see an added, though presently underutilized, benefit of volunteer experiences: accelerating executive development.

Volunteer Leadership and Executive Development

As part of ongoing development, leaders oftentimes need to change the very behaviors that have historically contributed to their success, sometimes in profound ways. Being asked to do something other than what you know has historically made you successful can feel awkward at best and unnecessary or utterly wrong at worst. Doing so as a leader, where you must experiment and practice in a very public manner, can be downright scary. This prospect often leaves executives feeling like they have no safe place to grow as a leader.

This is where volunteering comes into the fold.

As noted above, there are some obvious benefits of volunteering—for organizations, communities, and individual well-being. However, volunteer opportunities are increasingly utilized not only as an opportunity “to do good,” but also “to develop.” That is, both corporate and volunteer organizations are seeing the upside in leveraging executive development volunteer programs. Volunteer organizations benefit from the executives’ expertise, business acumen, and broad commercial perspective. Corporate organizations benefit from an experience that engages the executive, often providing a broader sense of the world and a sense of purpose—thus helping the individual become a more well-rounded leader in the process. 

In terms of the day-to-day experience, the overlap is clear: corporate and nonprofit leaders alike must work to craft a vision, inspire and persuade others, negotiate, and execute. In nonprofit settings, these “muscles” may be developed more extensively, due to the absence of financial incentives and/or formal, organizational authority. Additionally, volunteer leadership opportunities can offer a relatively safer, more understanding, and more supportive place to experiment and grow as a leader.

Getting Started: Some Practical Advice for the Inspired

If you’re considering a volunteer leadership opportunity, you may be wondering how to go about it and how to find time for it. Consider below what the research says about time commitments and volunteering:

  • Time Affluence. First, know that should you make time to volunteer, you may end up feeling like you have more time in your life rather than less. This is a phenomenon called “time affluence.” Research has shown that individuals who spend time helping others report subjective feelings of having more time, rather than less.
  • Time Commitment. Second, we aren’t talking about an inordinate amount of time here. Research suggests positive change can be affected in as little as 100 hours a year.
  • Time Chunking. Third, how you divvy up your time matters. Recent studies suggest you should volunteer less frequently in terms of the number of days a month, but when you do, do so for longer periods of time. In other words, volunteering one Saturday a month is likely to be more effective than spreading the time over several days a week.

If you decide to embark on such an experience, here are some considerations:

  • Your Organization. An increasing number of organizations offer robust volunteer experiences, many of which are designed with leadership development in mind. So, be sure to start by checking out what your employer offers before going outside.
  • Your Skillset. Consider how your professional skills might be of use and developed. If you’re a chief counsel, can you help an organization with legal matters? That way, you’re not just donating time but also expertise. Conversely, you may also want to consider roles that will broaden your skillset. Want to accelerate your strategic thinking capacity? Seek a board seat at a nonprofit.
  • The Nonprofit’s Mission. Don’t just pick any nonprofit. You’ll be most engaged if you find an organization whose cause aligns with your values—giving you a sense of energy, passion, and purpose. Use resources such as VolunteerMatch, Idealist, and Leader’s Quest to learn more about volunteer experiences based on location and mission.

You’re In! Now What?

So you’re signed up. How can you make the most of your experience? Here are some critical considerations:

  • Your Goals. Aside from “doing good” for a cause, what are you trying to accomplish through this experience? What are you trying to do differently as an executive? How do you want to contribute to the nonprofit organization? Give thoughtful consideration to two or three development objectives and how you can best go about developing them through your volunteer experience.
  • The Nonprofit’s Mission. While personal betterment may have brought you to the nonprofit, don’t forget they are an organization with a mission. You can certainly improve as a leader, but it is important to keep the contribution of the broader good in mind.
  • Networking Opportunities. Nonprofits offer great opportunities to broaden your network. Be it through the board, charity events, or working alongside people you never would have encountered otherwise, there is an abundance of opportunity to develop new and important relationships. Take advantage.
  • Mentorship Opportunities. As you work on your development objectives, see if you can identify a mentor to help you achieve them. Also, seek mentorship opportunities of leaders junior to you, as this also has added benefits of developing others and developing yourself.

We wish you a happy holiday season and a new year full of doing good, and leading better.  










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