Payback time

Giving back to the community through voluntary work can help you acquire fresh skills, gain new confidence and meet some remarkable people.

When John Strawinski was invited on to the board of Project North East in the early 1990s he saw it as an opportunity for himself and his work. Project North East is a not-for-profit enterprise and economic development consultancy, which aims to help people and organisations realise their true potential through business.

At the time, Strawinski was working for Whitbread as an estates manager and was actively encouraged by his employer – one of PNE's sponsors – to take the opportunity to develop new links across the north east region.

Strawinski saw it as a great chance to develop his business skills, meet some new people, and put something back into the community.

"They were happy to invest time in me before I could really contribute anything back, but it offered me the chance to mix with people from a range of organisations and disciplines."

"It gave me experience of a different kind of cost-benefit analysis, helped me to network with other people, and a knowledge of the market in Newcastle. It's helped me in my career ever since and really was a case of benefits all round."

Strawinski liked the organisation so much that he still works with PNE even though he has since switched employers.

Downturn downside?
Of course, such social responsibility is all well and good when the economy is booming, but what happens when times are tough? Do companies and individuals become less willing to get involved?

Amy Stillman, marketing director at Common Purpose doesn't think so. "In recessionary times, people may have to consider a job change," she says. "Getting involved in the community – either through work or on an individual basis – can provide an excellent opportunity to gain new skills and perspective."

"We encourage people who are interested in public life and community involvement to plan their 'careers' as citizens just the way they would plan their careers as professionals."

Of course, voluntary work with a not-for-profit organisation can also be an excellent way of keeping busy should you find yourself unemployed. There is nothing worse than sitting around waiting for replies to job applications, and prospective employers will want to know what you have been doing with your time off.

It might even lead to a job opportunity that you had not even considered. One of the greatest advantages of voluntary work is the chance to meet people from other organisations – some of whom may be at a senior level. It gives you the chance to expand your network of potential employers while putting something back into the community.

The US example
Executives in the US – and their employers – tend to have more of an enlightened view of community involvement than their peers in the UK. Perhaps that stems from a longer history of recognising the benefits.

Catherine Jordan, programme director for the Blacklock artists' retreat in northern Minnesota, finds it hard to believe that US executives would be put off from volunteering for social programmes simply because of an economic downturn.

Jordan says that community involvement or work with non-profit organisations is very strong across the US and is a recognition that business needs a solid society as much as society needs solid businesses.

"It follows from a corporate understanding that if you don't have a good community, you don't have a workforce."

She says that employers in the US have started to look negatively on individuals who don't put something back into their community outside of their work.

"If you're only concentrating on one area, then it's very easy to get bored and lose your focus. They see getting involved as a mixture of altruism and enlightened self-interest."

Arts & Business
One director of human resources and organisational development with Coutts bank in London needs no more convincing. Arts & Business, an organisation that helps put business executives and creative people together to further the needs of both types of organisation, linked her up with the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

The volunteer worked with LPO's chief executive on board development and reviewing the role of the board of trustees. Both of the organisations – and the individuals involved – say that they benefit from the experience.

"I get a tremendous amount of enjoyment from it," says the Coutts director, who prefers to remain anonymous.

"You get to meet people from completely different worlds and the experience plays an important part in your personal development. It's a bit like going to the gym – you come back with more energy and enthusiasm."

Useful links
Common Purpose
Project North East

Blacklock Nature Sanctuary
Arts & Business

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