Learn Entrepreneurship By Volunteering
If I offered you a chance at an internship that would rock your business, and your business potential, more than any class you could take anywhere, would you sign up? Yes? OK, then get out there and volunteer somewhere. Volunteer? Yeah. It’s a good thing. I mean, duh! It helps our neighbors, our communities and our country and it helps us. Yeah. You and me and everyone. Millions of us volunteer in one form or another. We deliver meals to shut-ins, swing hammers and paint houses with Habitat for Humanity, fill boxes at the local food bank, or serve dinners at local homeless shelters. We’re out there baby! In fact, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, around 63.4 million people in the US volunteered last year. That’s 26% of the population.
So why do all these folks volunteer? Lots of reasons. Obviously the financial gain is NOT one of those reasons, but there are other kinds of rewards and remuneration. People volunteer because they get more out of the experience than what they put into it. The whole feel good, put a gold star on my emotional chart is one thing. But you also can express yourself, meet new people, make new friends, learn new skills, network and rub elbows with community leaders you might not ever meet otherwise. But there’s one more reason to volunteer: You can learn to be a kick ass entrepreneur along the way—especially if you go into it seeing it as both a chance to give back and an opportunity to learn and hone your people and job skills.
I experienced all that stuff first hand by spending a few days planning, and then working, at the food bank in my community. Man oh man, did I experience some hard core business lessons, and so will you…
Going into volunteering, you may think you are the ultimate nice guy, the generous guy, giving of your time and skills. You’re just going to walk in, do some work, help a few folks and earn some brownie points. But if you really want to see what being an entrepreneur is all about, volunteering in a leadership position will give you important insights into what it is like to run a business and to rely upon others to have your mission carried out. Consider it a trade in a lot of ways, your time for life lessons. Getting others to do the things you want or need them to do is hard enough when you’re paying them. When they are simply volunteering their time, it becomes a whole new ballgame, one that requires inspiration and clarity in the common vision in order to effectively lead them and meet all the objectives.
There are a lot of important things that volunteering will teach you about entrepreneurship, but here are the ones I learned first hand:
- Focus. How easy it is to get off track! When people work, they often get distracted. This is especially true with volunteering. Even people who know each other (and those who don’t) can be easily sidetracked into conversation. You’ve seen it happen in your workplace right? Well, it happens everywhere. The work grinds to a halt and you’re the one who has to light the fire to get things popping again. You can’t whip volunteers (or employees), or hold a performance bonus over their heads. So you need to find a way to support both rapport among the team and getting the work done. You have to learn to go in prepared and to be aware of how to influence and motivate your volunteers.
- Listen. You will also learn, when volunteering, that everyone has a better or new idea. The thing is, people volunteer because they want to be helpful and they want to share what they know and be rewarded and acknowledged for their contribution and its significance. So ideas (as dumb as some are) come fast and furious. You’ll need to learn to acknowledge their input while focusing that energy on going about the work in one consistent way.
Recognize. Want to keep your volunteers motivated? Lavish them with praise and recognition for their efforts and for a job well done. But only use this to reinforce the good things, like when they are doing the right things right!
The Hardest Lessons
Becoming humble is perhaps the hardest and most important lesson you can learn from doing volunteer work. You realize at some point along the way that in the grand scheme of things, you really aren’t all that important. I had to step away for an hour during my volunteer project and, sure enough, productivity actually hummed along (even increased) when I was not there. The lesson here is that you, as an entrepreneur, need to set the course, get people fired up, and then, for God’s sake, get out of the way and let them do amazing things.
Volunteering to organize something for your community may not put money in your pocket. But there is a good chance it can help you become a more insightful business leader, as it did me. By honing in on the important lessons that you learn as a volunteer, you can use what you learned to work with your own employees. And those lessons may just take your business to the next level, which is priceless.
If you want to read more about volunteering, check out Volunteer by Charlotte Hindle.
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