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Use your volunteer time off to stretch your skills in higher education

Volunteer time-off policies are spreading. According to the Society for Human Resource Management’s annual Employee Benefits Survey,1,2 the number of workplaces offering these benefits has grown 10 percent since 2014 as organizations ranging from corporations to universities realize their value for employee retention. This is particularly true of millennials. According to the 2015 Millennial Impact Report,3 70 percent of this generation dedicates at least some of their time to giving back to their communities. Taking advantage of your university’s volunteer time-off policy can be incredibly fulfilling, allowing you to break out of your routine and help make the world a better place, but it can also make you better at your job. Here’s how you can use your time as a community volunteer to enhance your career.
Learn new skills
Volunteer experience can do more for you than look good on a resume. It can be an opportunity to try new things and learn new skills. Do you work in IT but always wanted to do student recruitment? Maybe you could benefit from taking a public-facing nonprofit volunteer opportunity to develop your people skills. Amanda Martin, assistant director of the Office of Community Engaged Learning & Service at Drake University, picked up curriculum building skills while she helped design an experience day for youth as a volunteer with the Youth Leadership Initiative in Des Moines, Iowa. “This experience just helps strengthen my ability to do this type of thing with the college students I work with,” she said. She was even able to borrow ideas for a worksheet that she could adapt to a college setting.
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Use your nonprofit volunteer time to take on a complex project that mirrors something you’ve wanted to do at work.

Demonstrate your proficiency

In addition to learning new skills, you can take on bigger projects than you get to manage at your day job. Use your nonprofit volunteer time to take on a complex project that mirrors something you’ve wanted to do at work. You can then demonstrate your knowledge and successes to your boss and colleagues to show you can handle the demands of a promotion, new project, or other positions of leadership.

Kerwin Dobbins, a program assistant at Drake’s School of Education, showed off the conservation skills he previously learned as an AmeriCorps and NCCC volunteer while using his volunteer time off to participate in the “All Drake University Clean-Up” of downtown Des Moines and other environmental cleanup events. As a result, he earned a spot on the university’s Sustainability Committee, which makes policy recommendations to the university president and the community and assists in their implementation.

Build your network

While you’re growing your skills, you can also expand your network. Volunteering is a natural way to meet new people and deepen existing relationships. When volunteering solo, you can make new connections that may come in handy in the future. If you’re volunteering with your co-workers, you get to spend quality time with the people you work with off-the-clock.

The relationships Martin has built through her day job and those she’s built through volunteering have strengthened each other, she says. With the Youth Leadership Initiative, she’s even taken high school youth to tour or volunteer with some of the same organizations she interacts with through the Office of Community Engaged Learning & Service.

“By having the opportunity to work with the organizations through different avenues in the community, this helps strengthen our relationship,” she says.

Find volunteer opportunities that suit you

So how do you find a volunteer opportunity that can do all this? First, identify what you’re passionate about. If you’re passionate about improving the circumstances of people experiencing homelessness, for example, you could look for a local homelessness-focused nonprofit group to help.

Then, decide what you want to learn through your contribution. What skills do you want to develop? What abilities do you want to practice? What sorts of people do you want to meet? These questions can guide you towards opportunities that help you reach your goals.

Finally, you have to find the opportunity. Perhaps your university has a department focused on community service, like Drake’s Office of Community Engaged Learning & Service. Or, you can find volunteer opportunities on websites like Volunteer Match or Idealist.

Volunteering is important in itself. It can connect you to your community, improve your well-being, and help you avoid burnout. But with these tips, you can get something back while giving back.

1. Wessels, K., & Robinson, S. (2018). 2018 Employee Benefits Survey. 2018 Employee Benefits Survey. Society for Human Resource Management. Retrieved from Employee Benefits Report.pdf
2. Society for Human Resource Management. (2019). 2019 Employee Benefits Survey. 2019 Employee Benefits Survey. Retrieved from Employee Benefits 2019 Executive Summary.pdf
3. Feldmann, D., Hosea, J., & Wall, M. (2015). 2015 Millennial Impact Report. 2015 Millennial Impact Report. The Millennial Impact Project. Retrieved from
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