How Leadership through Volunteering Made me a Better Entrepreneur
March 22, 2017 | makingmidwest
Opportunities stare us in the face every day, but what we choose to do with them is up to us. When asked to take on a new role in managing an organization, many leaders may feel hesitant to take on one more responsibility. It’s easy to avoid volunteering when you already feel so strapped for time and feel that your professional development can be better enhanced by running your own business than a separate group.
This past year, I received the rare chance to lead The Columbus Society of Communicating Arts as Co-President, one of the oldest and better-known creative organizations in our state. CSCA is a nonprofit supporting the growth of Ohio designers and other communication art professionals since 1970. At the time, my own company was in its infancy, just starting its third year, and I had just found out my husband and I were expecting our first child. It wasn’t an easy choice to step up and at first did not feel like the right timing, but with everything I gained I am very lucky I did.
What I’ve realized now with the end of CSCA’s 45th year is that if you are looking for personal development and to be better prepared for running a business successfully — regardless of that company’s size and maturity — there is no better way than to give back to an organization you care about than to use your talents to help manage it. The experience is more than rewarding — it prepares you to become a better owner and leader.
Leading an organization presents all sorts of new challenges outside of your everyday role, and you have to quickly learn how to adapt to them. At our agency, ZoCo Design, we pride ourselves on being able to wear a lot of hats in both the work we deliver and in the diversity of clients we serve, because we believe that exposure to variety gives you the opportunity to grow faster than redundancy. Because your organization has different needs and goals than your own business, leadership here will similarly help you discover new talents in yourself and in your peers. For me, the most important new skill developed was improving my spontaneous public speaking. You don’t always have the time to prepare your presentation and may have to learn how to do it on the fly.
As you discover your own new talents, you might also get to help others determine what they are best at and where their special talents lie. As much as you would like to think you can “do it all,” yourself, learning how to delegate is critical and leading an organization reinforces this skill. Learning how to trust others, regardless of their experience level, with tasks you may otherwise execute yourself empowers your team and gives you the opportunity to mentor.
Oftentimes, just making the ask of someone is enough to get help, but that is not always the case. Managing a group or nonprofit drives you to determine what motivates people, especially in a volunteer organization where everyone is giving their time for the good of the group. This sort of empathy is essential for recruiting volunteers, donors and event attendees. Rallying around common personal interests and the mission of the organization can be a good start.
Your day-to-day job may not have anything to do with marketing, but through this new management role you tend to discover the art of publicity and promotion. You are entrusted with the mission to rally support for your cause, which may mean building awareness through special events, sending out communications, strengthening sponsorships, and of course building your membership. All of these areas benefit from promotion.
Bonding with your fellow volunteers and your organization’s membership is easy as you serve together for a common goal. If you are looking to expand your professional network and get to know your community, there is no easier way than leading the organization that connects everyone. Having the sort of visibility that leadership affords you is especially beneficial if you are a bit more on the shy side, as it pushes you out of your comfort zone.
Of course one of the biggest reasons to head an organization is for the opportunity it affords to make a difference. Through leading, you are empowered with possibility and the freedom to experiment. One of the best bits of advice I received during my term as CSCA President was that things don’t have to be done the old way. It is up to you to chart the course while keeping the primary mission and goals of the organization at heart. For us, that was to support and elevate the creative community — how we accomplished that goal and the impact we made was up to us.
There are many different directions you can take your term as leader, and a thousand different initiatives you could spearhead. However, in order to make your mark and achieve what you have planned, you will learn how to set specific focused goals and stick to them. At the beginning of the year, we had determined that we would concentrate our efforts on special programming for students, host members-only events, and commit to a much needed update for our website. Making this decision resolved where we focused our energy so we could not get distracted even when other new and exciting ideas surfaced.
One of the biggest lessons I gained from my experience with CSCA is that resourcefulness is better than resources. Whether it’s volunteers, funds, or time, you are often left wishing you had more. This teaches you to do a lot with a little and to be creative and strategic with how you use the means available. With clear and focused goals, you can prioritize resource allocation and still accomplish your organization’s missions — a lesson you can use over and over again in your professional career.
Sometimes despite your best efforts, not everything goes as planned. Failure is ok and isn’t always catastrophic. Perhaps you might feel disappointed when your volunteer numbers dwindle for a few months — Or maybe signing sponsors isn’t going as well as you had hoped — Or what if one of your speakers needs to cancel last minute or their flight is delayed enough to miss the event (one of my biggest fears)? These types of challenges are all a part of running any business or organization and teach you to be resilient.
Everyone has their own reasons for stepping up and becoming more involved in the groups they care about, but if you are currently running a business or hope to be an entrepreneur in the future I would strongly encourage it. The pride and satisfaction you feel for giving back are reason enough, but the professional development you gain is inspirational and empowering. The experience can further shape and mold who you are as a leader and may make all the difference in your career.