Strategic Volunteering: Do You Do It?

Strategic Volunteering: Do You Do It? | CorporetteDo you guys volunteer? Do you do it at a high level (board member or committee level)? How did you get started doing it — were you interested in the organization, did you purposely do it for networking, or did you somehow fall into it? We’ve talked about this in the context of making new friends, as well as pondering what professional organizations you should join and polling how much everyone gives to charity — but we haven’t really talked about volunteering.

I’m way under the weather today, so I’ve been lying in bed catching up on reading, watching TED, and playing Candy Crush. (I honestly can’t remember the last time I had a sick day!)  One of the articles I’m trying to catch up on (if the NYT didn’t have a huge banner ad that pops up right in the middle of the text) is the recent one about how “the opt out generation wants back in.” Anyway, I was particularly interested to hear about the role that volunteering played in returns to work:

Among the women I spoke with, those who didn’t have the highest academic credentials or highest-powered social networks or who hadn’t been sufficiently “strategic” in their volunteering (fund-raising for a Manhattan private school could be a nice segue back into banking; running bake sales for the suburban swim team tended not to be a career-enhancer) or who had divorced, often struggled greatly.

So, ladies — are you strategic in your volunteering?   How much time do you devote to volunteering?

(Pictured: Fundraising in the dictionary, originally uploaded to Flickr by HowardLake.)



  1. I serve on a number of boards for non-profit organizations, and while they’re close to my heart, I’ll tell you what I want, what I really, really want:

    three to four paid director positions, preferably with evil financial institutions who’ll pay enough, in exchange for precious little work on my part, that I can retire early and live the lifestyle to which I want to become accustomed.

  2. I do a lot of volunteering, and have from the time I was a teenager. I don’t approach it as “strategic” at all – it’s more of a case of, is this a cause/organization I’m interested in, and do I have time to help them? Volunteering is just part of who I am.

    Most of my volunteer work is with one particular youth-serving organization, which I’ve been a member of since I was a child. I currently volunteer at the regional level, am responsible for a particular area of that organization’s programming, and sit on the regional board. It takes up a lot of evenings and weekends but to me, the time commitment is worth it. Not only am I helping the organization, but I’ve developed so many skills through my work with them, and have met lots of amazing, inspiring women.

    I also volunteer with other organizations on more of a one-off basis. Currently I’m doing conference planning for a bar organization, which I find really interesting. I volunteer with my church, and do other things as they come up. In the past I’ve been on volunteer boards, but am not doing so at the moment. I’m currently considering offering myself up as a mentor for a branch of my local bar association.

    I don’t do any of this for networking purposes. I just see networking as an ancillary benefit. Often my “volunteer jobs” are more fun and interesting than what’s going on in my “real job”!

  3. Diana Barry :

    I am on the board of a small nonprofit- can’t really say what it is, am worried about outing myself. It is in no way strategic, although when I first got started with it I thought, this would also look good on my resume/bio page. I do hardly any networking (the real kind).

    If I were to become a SAHM, I would definitely become more strategic with my volunteering.

    • Just out of curiosity, why be more strategic if you’re a SAHM? I am on a board for both personal and professional reasons — it’s something I care about AND it’s given me a few community/business connections. I also have kids and haven’t really volunteered for them but if I did I’m assuming it would be a room mom or something.

      • Diana Barry :

        I mean for future getting-back-into-the-workforce purposes.

        • Coach Laura :

          Diana has a good point that was borne out by the NYT article: If you are going to leave the workforce for any length of time and are not independently wealthy (this does not include spouse/partner income), you should include high-level, visible networking roles that bring you into contact with professionals and others who are at networking contacts. These contacts would be at a level or in a position where they could help you if you needed to return to the workforce. It’s just good insurance.

  4. OttLobbyist :

    I have three kinds of volunteering – one is personal, with a cause that is close to my heart, at the committee level. I do one off charity event volunteering, usually in support of friends or family, in a role where I just get to do something without having to plan it, like giving runners water, or registration desk. Finally, I do have more strategic volunteering which is tied to rounding out parts of my resume – ie sitting on a committee dedicating to marketing a given charity, since I work in GR/PR but do little brand/marketing but want to practice the skills involved. Ultimately though, I volunteer because I can, and believe strongly in community. It’s healthy not think about your own stuff all the time, and focus on other people.

    • I love your last two sentences. I feel exactly the same way.

    • Business, Not Law :

      This sums up my thoughts and approach to volunteering almost to the letter.

      • WorkingMom :

        I really want to be more involved in my community. Last year I took on a volunteer position for an organization that I am passionate about. I am sad and embarrassed to report that I have contributed essentially nothing to the organization. Maybe I’m not not as passionate as I thought about this cause? But personally, I just cannot figure out WHEN to squeeze in more obligation. I have a very demanding career, happen to also be a mom (which means I want to see my kid in the evenings and on weekends), a wife (so again, a need to see my spouse occasionally), and I am the type of person who needs to exercise. Not obsessively, just 2-3 times a week I need to go to a fitness class usually after my kid goes to bed. I need this for my stress relief / sanity.

        I know many of you all are in the exact same boat. So, how do you find time to attend meetings in addition to all of that? (Throw in meal prep, housework, yard work, etc.) I know I am not the only “busy person” in the world… but so many other people seem to find more time in each day than I do. What am I doing wrong? How can I squeeze more in without losing my mind? TIA!

        • If you just want to help the organization (not networking/friendship building), see if they have opportunities you can do by phone or online on your time. My alma mater, for example, needs people to review internship applications and send back feedback on resumes and cover letters. They email them to me and I return them a couple weeks later when I have time. It lets me be helpful without having to try to find a free evening or weekend!

  5. has anyone bought an Issa dress? I just ordered one, and the dress says true to size–but it can sometimes be deceiving. any thoughts on their sizing?

  6. The 1 volunteer activity I’m involved in is because it’s a program I benefited from a great deal when I was in college, so I like being involved on the other side.

    If I go down to part time after my husband I have kids, I plan on doing more volunteering to stay active outside my home and keep adult social interaction in my life.

    While I do belive it’s important to give back and I get satisfaction out of helping others in a way that’s not directly related to my work, I can’t say that my volunteering is totally selfless. My husband and I both volunteer for causes that we truly care about, but we also recoginize that volunteering is an important resume item.

  7. I volunteer with an organization I am passionate about. I was just a regular donor but after reading Lean In, I decided to do something. It’s not related to my job and there is a community of lawyers involved but they aren’t the kind that would be likely to refer me any business.

    That said, many organizations are worried that their donor bases are aging and that they really don’t have much in the pipeline in terms of donors or volunteers. For example, “my” organization is forming a new group in an attempt to reach out to people under 40-ish (and more like anyone under 50 or 55). I’m actively trying to get this off the ground and have volunteered to help in a particular way. I don’t know if it’ll result in any business but I figure it’s a good start and better than doing absolutely nothing.

    I do have a question for the hive, though. This organization is politically controversial nationally but not controversial in my geographical region or among the people I see most often (like the ACLU, Planned Parenthood, the Boy Scouts, or the NRA). It’s listed as an activity on my LinkedIn page. Is that wise?

    • Statutesq :

      First, I accidentally just reported you. Sorry! Here’s another vote for a “confirm” request before you report a comment.

      Second, in reply: I list my controversial association on my resume because I’d rather be ruled out from the beginning if it’s going to be a problem. It’s a big part of who I am, and it’s going to come out eventually. That said, if I was in a desperate situation, I’d probably take it off.

      • Or maybe if possible move the Report button to the right side of the column so they’re not quite so close together?

      • Lady Harriet :

        My volunteering is more sporadic in recent years, so I don’t list it on my resume, but it’s also for a “controversial” cause that provokes a very emotional response in many people. However, fairly often my work for my regular job is also related to this cause. I don’t explicitly advertise this fact, which can sometimes make it tricky when describing some of the projects I’ve worked on. However, the place where I work is very well known for its size, and it would take very little internet digging to figure out what some of my research entails. I grew up in a place where I received a lot of discrimination when people found out my views, so I’m wary of setting myself up for that again. I try to avoid places that I know would be miserable, but I’m just starting out so I can’t be too choosy. Where I live and work now most people hold the same beliefs, but I know I don’t want to stay here or at similar organizations forever because there’s not much of a market for my professional skills.

        TL;DR: I think it’s okay as long as you’re well-established and not looking to make any major career or geographical transitions (which from what I remember seems to be the case for you, k-padi.) If you’re a newbie in some fashion, it takes a lot of outgoing confidence to pull it off, moreso than I have!

    • I would go ahead and list it, but if I were actively looking (for a job, or clients), I probably would take it off for fear of being typecast. Similar to talking about my kid, which I wouldn’t necessarily do at the initial meeting stage in an interview situation/new client situation, for fear of being typecast.

  8. Not strategic, just do things I care about. Since graduating I’ve volunteered with a local high school’s team for my favorite sport, and also help out with other related events around town as needed. Honestly, I do enough work at work, that I don’t feel the need to work at volunteering strategically.

    • This is my approach. I volunteer because it makes me happy and because I’m giving back to my community, not because of a network or resume.

      I work with underpriviledged-kids-and-teens charities, and they seem to lack people who will actually do the grunt work. There are always people volunteering for the board, but we struggle majorly to find people who want to work directly with the kids. I’ve been asked to join a board, and I’m considering it, but I’m concerned it will take away from my available time for the other charities I support.

  9. anon-oh-no :

    My pro bono work is all work i care/am passionate about. This obviously has strategic benefits, but i only take on the types of cases I am interested in.

    As for charitable contributions, I also give mainly to organizations I care about, but with some exceptions for when friends/family/clients/colleagues ask for contributions to their organizations.

    I sit on one board of a small-ish local organization. I initilaly decided I should sit on a board for networking related reasons, but it took me a few years to find one i was interested in and that had an opening. I did not want to be on a board of something i didnt care particularly about.

  10. Famouscait :

    Does anyone have any input on how dresses from Three Dots fit? I’m looking at this one for (yet another) wedding a barn I have to attend in a month:

    • I have the 1/2 sleeve seamed dress from Three Dots that is my very favorite work dress for conferences with a blazer thrown on top.

      Can’t believe I paid full price for it! Based on that one dress, they may run slightly small (I bought a medium but normally a size 4-6) but the small did fit me, it is just a very form-fitting dress and I wanted the extra length & room to be more appropriate for work events.

      Hopefully someone else has some additional experience with them.

  11. I volunteer for things I care about. I don’t feel the need to be all strategic about it. I also feel like I do enough leading at work so sometimes it’s nice to be a worker bee and not organize everything.

  12. If teaching CLE count’s, I do alot of that (plus prepareing the manageing partner to give his CLE’s)…yay!

    I cant believe David was talking to Dad and now Dad is pushing David back on me. This is a cheep trick and I am NOT goeing to go for it. FOOEY! Rosa says David is cute, but she already is MARRIED, so everyone is cute to a sister. Bye for now.

  13. So – a couple years ago I joined the Junior League (which my hippie mother still makes fun of me for) and I would say as a result I do a bit of both. I have always had – and probably/hopefully will always have – what JL calls “community placements” meaning that my volunteer positions are in the community (so far mostly mentoring, its been fun.) But part of JL’s mission is also to connect its members so (at least in my chapter) there are a mandatory number of events per year you have to attend and you have to raise x amounts of dollars and there is definitely a networking element to it – which is okay because that’s why I joined in the first place!

    As someone who is definitely *not* from what one might consider a traditionally Junior Leaguey background, I was nervous that I’d find it all pretty intolerable at first, but it turned out to be a lot more fun than I expected and I’ve made some very good friends, many of whom work in various kinds of “professional” environments and who I’m sure will be good networking contacts down the line. Anyway – so I guess the answer is I do both?

    • Thank you. I’ve been wondering about the JL for years. My only friend in it is a member in TX, and I’m in DC so I figured they’d be different.

      I’m an attorney work for the gov’t, and thanks to the ethics rules there is not a lot I can do that relates to my job (even pro bono clinics where there’s an extreme outside chance I’d ever end up in court, etc.). If anyone has any other thoughts on volunteering in your career-area while working for the gov’t, I’d love to hear them.

      At this moment I’m not sure I have the time and energy to take on a large commitment (kids, hubby works 2 jobs and grad school), so lately I prefer the grunt work of monthly volunteering to which my children can come/assist (food pantry, stream cleanup, election day) and that which is largely coordinated online (scholarship selection board). If I did do strategic (thinking aloud now), it would preferably be a skill I’m missing on my resume, such as budget/finance.

      • I’d enourage you to look into the Junior League then. There are lots of in-League placements that will help you with those strategic skills (budget, fundraising/grants, community partner selection).

  14. I volunteer for many reasons. Some is strategic (bar association, chamber of commerce), some personal interest (equine rescue), some personal gain (ie. free admission to event), and some I get roped into by friends/family.

    • Equine rescue? Like…rescuing horsies? Do you have a barn or do you GO to a barn?? And is it mostly cleaning up after them or do you get to play with them (or whatever the horsie equivalent of playing is?) THAT SOUNDS LIKE THE BEST EVER! (I do doggy rescue but that’s more normal and while fun not as cool as equine rescue AT ALL!)

      • I don’t have my own barn, but the rescues do look for people to foster horses. I wish I could! One org I’m involved with helps to rehome racehorses, with that usually I go to the racetrack and talk to trainers and get information on horses that are available. The other one rescues neglect cases, PMU or slaughter-bound. Unfortunately they moved to a larger property that is too far for me to visit regularly but they do look for volunteers to groom and spoil the horses or ride/help train the ones that are able.

  15. TO Lawyer :

    I used to volunteer with organizations I care about but now that I have fairly limited time, I basically want my volunteering to double-count i.e. a resume boost as well as being good for the community/with a cause I care about. Unfortunately I’ve had trouble finding something that fits both that isn’t a huge time commitment but I’m still looking.

  16. TJ: I started working at a new company fairly recently (about 3 months ago), and am loving it. When I took the job, I knew it would be a step down in responsibility (lower title, not management) but the money was the same as my old job and there was serious growth potential. Since I’ve gotten here, I’ve learned that I make significantly more money than others in my job classification. Yesterday, the HR director approached me and asked if I’d consider taking on some supervisory responsibilities.

    This is awesome, and I can’t imagine a world in which I’d say no. My question is, given my circumstances (already highly paid, started recently), is it out of line for me to ask for a raise to go along with the new responsibilities? Or other types of perks (better office, some extra PTO)? What do you ladies think?

  17. How do you get on the board of nonprofits?

    I’m a lawyer for a private firm in DC, but I’ve always been involved with the various nonprofits/thinktanks around town (either working for them or volunteering my time). I’ve never been asked to join a board, but I would much prefer to volunteer for an org in a “steering” role–on the board–than as a part-timer, the way I’ve been doing.

    How do I join a nonprofit’s board?

    • Most nonprofits I’ve worked with will groom their prospective board members from within–that is, new board members are invited instead of joining on their own initiative. Most nonprofits also expect their board members to give generously of their “treasure” in addition to their time and talent, so if you have the means to donate to the organizations that interest you, that will definitely get you on the radar.

      You might also concentrate your effort and your giving for one or two groups about which you are really passionate. Make a point of meeting the current board members or the executive director and indicate that you’re ready to step up your involvement. If they need you, they should be able to take it from there.

    • In my experience most boards (except probably high profile ones like Susan B. Komen, etc.) always need people. If you are consistently involved and going to meeting, etc. it’s not long before they pretty much beg you to join.

    • In DC, check out DC Cares – they do a board training program, and then they also can help with placement to match people with organizations who need board leadership. I have had it on my want-to-do list for a couple of years and hope to actually attend the training next year.

      • Idealist always lists openings for board members. Especially in DC. I haven’t actually looked into any…

        • Clarification – not to be on Idealist’s board; non-profits seeking board members post the “opening” on Idealist.

  18. I volunteer a lot, for things that I care about: I’m on the board at my church, I run an all-volunteer arts organization, and I’m on the board of an alumnae organization. I have been known to joke that I have two full-time jobs: the one that pays me, and my various volunteer commitments. (Just to put this in perspective, I’m mid-twenties, coupled but no kids, and I have a 40-hour workweek. There’s no way I’d be able to balance all this with some of the additional work/family responsibilities that many of you ladies are shouldering.)

    That said, I recently changed careers and went into non-profit leadership and development professionally, spurred in large part by realizing that I really loved and was talented at some of the things I was tackling in my volunteer life. I know that my volunteer resume was a big part of what made me an attractive candidate for my current job, but I certainly didn’t take on these volunteer responsibilities strategically or with an eye towards networking or making myself more marketable.

    I will say that it’s interesting to see how individual attitudes towards volunteering differ. I rarely realize that my level of involvement is unusual, because I grew up seeing my mother be heavily involved in church and community organizations, and I have always been a joiner. I don’t even think of it as “giving back”–my participation is an investment of my time and talents in an organization or a cause that I care about, but I benefit from those organizations or causes being better-run or better-supported or whatever.

    Also–and I know this is weird and kind of cheeky–I sometimes wonder about people I meet who *aren’t* this involved. Aren’t they bored? What do they do with all their time? This isn’t said with any kind of judgment–I just can’t imagine what my life would look like without all these volunteer commitments. I do get punchy when things really pile on–this Saturday I have a breakfast meeting and then a three-hour conference call, boo–but honestly, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

    • Hah, ohc, I could have written your post word-for-word, except that I haven’t actually changed careers to professional non-profit leadership (yet).

      I wonder about people who aren’t involved too. I find I get more done when I am busy. What do other people do, who don’t have these kinds of commitments?

    • SoCalAtty :

      I took about a 4 year break from all volunteering of any kind. I had just finished up a term as an elected officer in a statewide position of an international organization, and I was fried and entering law school. In the amazing amounts of free time I had, I got serious about equine sports (bought my own, started jumping) and started backpacking and cycling.

      It is part of why I’m a little reluctant to get TOO involved in organizations now – I realized all of the other fun stuff I could be doing other than sitting in commitee meetings! I’m now a little better at work/life and volunteer/life balance, so it was a good thing to learn early.

      • Ah, but some of us are so warped that we *enjoy* sitting in committee meetings! At least, I usually do.

        I hear you on the work/volunteer/life balance thing, though. For me, I love the rhythms of my responsibilities, and I agree with Nonny that I tend to be more efficient when I have a lot on my plate, but my partner is a lot more attached to having “down time”. That’s been a learning experience for both of us.

        • SoCalAtty :

          That’s a fair point! I loved it while I was doing it, that’s for sure. I think part of my “burn out” was that this particular organization’s “main” leadership had gone a bit off the rails and were doing bad things for the organization, and are actually still doing a good job of riding it right into oblivion.

          I just finished up a year in my city’s leadership training program, which is essentially to groom you to sit on non-profit boards or city committees, and I find that I’m enjoying the meetings again!

    • As someone with next to zero time, a single mother with a corporate job who is exhausted, eats only frozen food, and does not get to exercise often, please don’t assume others have a bunch of free time. I volunteered when I was younger. It is not an option right now. Period. Basics must come first. Also, some of us just enjoy having unscheduled time. WHen I was on a nonprofit board, going to a 3 hour meeting after work on Monday was miserable to me. And meant I didn’t have a healthy dinner or exercise- even pre-kid and divorce.
      A caution to those looking for board placements- be careful about those begging you to join. They might be ‘working boards.’ Unless you have a LOT of free time, this can be like an unpaid job, and you’ll then have to find a way to bow out gracefully a year or two later.

  19. Stephanie :

    I strategically volunteer for stuff all the time. I’m a commercial real estate broker and just recently reached out to a department of the Chamber of Commerce that helps entrepreneurs get started. One of the judges at the next event is someone I’m trying to have as a client. Volunteering is just a vehicle to get me in front of him without it seeming so obvious I want his business.

  20. I work for a nonprofit, so basically I volunteer ALL of my time (ba-dum-bum). But I do also think strategically about taking volunteer roles in other organizations, getting onto boards, etc, as a way to boost my resume and help me achieve some career advancement at some point. Haven’t really been succeeding yet, but maybe some day.

  21. SoCalAtty :

    I don’t volunteer as much as I used to, but I am a member of Rotary and sit on the board of a small non-profit I helped establish. Rotary is a pretty good networking platform, and the range of charitable activies are pretty diverse, so I get to do a little bit of everything.

  22. I volunteer on the Board of a local nonprofit because of the cause, although it does look good on a resume. I also sing with a very wonderful and talented choir, which is entirely because I enjoy it– but there are very good networking and friendship opportunities in addition to the rewarding nature of choral music and performances.

  23. gablesgirl :

    My time has becoming very valuable. My employer values volunteering if it has a strategic connection to my job. So I’m becoming much more focused with volunteer time.

  24. My biggest volunteer commitment is not strategic at all. I’m a Girl Scout leader for my daughter’s troop. We’re starting our 5th year together and the girls are all in 10th grade, so I have 3 more years to go. It requires more time than I would like to be putting into it, but I care a lot about the girls and intend to see them through high school. (In addition to doing service and earning awards that will look good on college applications, we do travel as a troop, which I think will keep the girls engaged until they graduate. If we can find a way to fundraise enough, we may try to do an international trip the summer before their senior year.)

    My strategic volunteering is through a subcommittee of an employee organization at work. It has been a great way for me to make connections in my gvt agency and to understand how “the building works” (as the lingo goes) as we meet with senior leadership to address issues. Elections are coming up in the next few months and I need to decide whether to run for an official position. This is where I’m torn because I don’t think I will have the time, given my fairly demanding job and the Girl Scout commitment. Whatever I decide about running for an official position, I intend to remain involved because I appreciate the big-picture perspective I get in working on the issues and I’m invested in the improvements we are trying to make.

    Once I finish my Girl Scout commitment, I would be interested in joining a board or possibly doing something in local government.

    • GirlArchitect :

      Don’t underestimate the role of Girl Scout leader as a volunteer. The Girl Scouts is an excellent training ground for young girls as future and leaders as well as active members in their communities. Several years ago, at a national convention of a non-profit I am involved, they had former Girl Scouts stand up – it was over 75% of the room! Wow! This is investing in the future.
      I was never a Girl Scout, but it’s clear to me that they can be a positive force for girls. For more, you might want to see this report by the Girl Scouts –