Enlightened self-interest

Pursuing voluntary work not only helps the community but also your career -- it can even make a difference to your employer, too.

The difference between success and failure to impress at interview often lies in being able to show prospective employers a range of skills and experience from outside your job â€â€ those soft, interpersonal skills that are difficult to prove but which are invaluable to any organisation.

One of the best ways of demonstrating such abilities is through experience gained with voluntary or not-for-profit organisations in your local community.

Putting back into society some of the benefits you take out, is how some people view it; others see it more as an intelligent addition to their work-based skills. Whatever the motivation, the benefits for the individual and employer are just as great as those for the local community.

Positive view
"There's an increasing trend to look positively on such work," says Amanda Jones, director of corporate community investment at Business in the Community, a lobby group that works on getting companies involved in more community projects. Eighty-nine of the FTSE 100 companies now run programmes with Business in the Community.

Jones claims that employers are beginning to recognise the benefits of creating volunteer programmes for their staff, and the positive impact of such programmes on recruitment, employee retention, motivation, teamwork and training â€" and the bottom line.

In addition, employers are looking more favourably on potential employees that have taken the initiative themselves. "Employers are having to look a lot harder at people's CVs," says Jones, "particularly in areas with significant skill shortages."

Waking up sleepwalking citizens
So what sort of skills are we talking about here?

Amy Stillman is marketing director at Common Purpose, an educational organisation that runs leadership programmes to bring executives and community members together. She believes the benefits for all concerned are too numerous to detail.

"Few people emerge from Common Purpose with their prejudices â€" or working practices â€" unchanged," she says. "As their perspective gets wider, their vision improves. As their vision improves, their decision-making gets better."

She mentions the benefits of networking with a different group of people, gaining new ideas, strategic thinking, creative problem-solving, and the ability to influence. She sees the role of Common Purpose as "waking up sleepwalking citizens. There are some competencies that blossom in a cross-sector environment where it is impossible to ignore the bigger picture."

Give something back
That sort of approach is backed up by Bill Stokoe, a former bank executive who now runs his own management consultancy. His experience as chairman of the board of governors of a large London further education college has been invaluable in his career. Helping to run an institution of 25,000 students and an annual budget of £35 million can be a testing task.

"I believe that if you take out of society, you should be prepared to put something back," he says. "That has been one of my main driving forces in the work."

He admits that his role has taken up much of his spare time, but says that learning to balance the demands of such a position with the demands of a day job is a skill in itself.

"Professionally speaking, the business of chairing a body with disparate needs, expectations, and backgrounds is a real challenge. There is also the difficulty of balancing the needs of the community with the need for solid finances."

He adds that the role has improved his confidence as a public speaker, leading discussions and making presentations. "In terms of developing skills for the board room, I would consider that it would be an advantage to anyone."

A passion to contribute
Carmel McConnell recently set up The Magic Sandwich, a scheme that provides breakfasts for underprivileged kids in Hackney, East London. The group started by providing 700 breakfasts a week in five pilot schools across the borough and has recently expanded the initiative.

Having worked in the City for several years, McConnell felt that she was spending all her time concentrating on something that didn't sit well with her values. When she heard that 25% of kids in Hackney were not getting a decent meal to start the day, she resolved to do something about it.

"I needed to get passionate about my life and myself. To start making a social contribution is enough, even if it is in baby steps."

Useful links
Business in the Community
Common Purpose

A version of this article first appeared on www.spencerstuart.com
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