Community Involvement & Volunteering Skills

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volunteer skills

Community involvement and volunteering can help you develop important skills. It’s also important to come to volunteer opportunities with a few key traits already in development.

Volunteers will excel at community involvement with qualities like dependability, curiosity, patience, humility, integrity, and a willingness to learn and try new things. In turn, volunteers develop professional skills like communication, time management, problem-solving, and relationship building.

While the term “skills set” is tossed around a lot in career development programs, it can often seem a bit ambiguous or intangible; soft skills like communication can seem less important as actual experience to put on a resume (especially for young professionals). But, as any experienced professional knows, skills are infinitely more important than where you last worked or went to school. 

Good schools and work experience with reputable companies can be beneficial obviously, but they don’t guarantee that someone walked away with a critical skill set.

So, those looking for longterm success should take the idea of building skills seriously, and volunteering is one proven way to do that. For example, some researchers have found that key social skills like those gained in volunteering are a major factor in professional success among entrepreneurs.

Below is a look at what skills volunteers should work on before volunteering and what skills people can reasonably expect to gain from volunteer positions.


If you’re looking to improve your resume – check out our post Volunteer Work That’s Good For Your Resume and Your Community.


Skills to Develop BEFORE Volunteering

Of course, every volunteer position will be different and some roles will only be open to experienced professionals such as doctors, agricultural specialists, and even business professionals. Nonetheless, there is no shortage of volunteer opportunities and no matter your age or level of experience there is likely a role fit for you.

Before getting involved in any volunteering position, you may want to take some time to reflect on how you fare in the below six categories, and if you can improve upon these qualities.

If you know you’re weak in a few areas, don’t let that stop you from getting involved – just be aware of it going into any opportunities and see any challenges as an opportunity to grow.

Dependability

Any time I speak to someone about volunteering, I say the same thing – make sure you’re consistent. By far and away the biggest problem with volunteers is a rise and fall in enthusiasm leading to missed shifts or quitting altogether. 

What many don’t realize is the impact of their “flakiness” both on the community and on the organization that provided the opportunity. Volunteers often have a much bigger impact than they realize. For example, simply acting as a role model for children can help improve their chances of success later in life; it can also help lower community crime rates. If volunteers are not dependable, then, they can damage people’s views of their community. 

Many organizations put a lot of time, energy, and money to make volunteer roles available and successful. Most of these organizations are cash-strapped nonprofits that invest what little they have in properly training volunteers and/or giving them the resources they need to succeed. Quitting prematurely, then, can flush a lot of key resources down the drain for these organizations. 

I have personally volunteered in many, many roles, but only one of them was a negative experience that haunts me to this day. Once, I had volunteered as a Tutor for the YMCA. I went to a school downtown to spend time with children that needed extra help. The assignment was meant to be a year-long, but after only a few months I had to quit for several reasons. The teachers were disappointed, the children were disappointed, the YMCA was disappointed, and I have never shaken that sense of letting them down (even after more than a decade later). 

So, it is critically important that volunteers make a real commitment when they decide to volunteer. Regardless of how much time volunteers spend in their roles, showing up is more than half the battle.

Curiosity

I am a firm believer that the phrase “curiosity killed the cat” was invented by someone with something to hide. Curiosity is a profoundly important trait to cultivate for volunteering (and for life) as it can lead to a better understanding of the world, a stronger sense of self-confidence, and a decrease in judgmental attitudes.

Volunteering positions offer so much to those who get involved and it’s important to take advantage of the opportunity to understand how organizations function, what your community cares about, and how you’re best suited to contribute to the world.

The best way to take advantage of this golden opportunity is to be genuinely curious about everything – your work, your colleagues, your community, and virtually everything and everyone you encounter.

Curiosity was one trait promoted by Dale Carnegie in his famous book How to Win Friends and Influence People. He suggested that it was one of the most important traits for anyone trying to make a difference and I would wholeheartedly agree.

Patience

If there is one skill that I have truly gained from volunteering it’s patience. My experience has taught me that the trait is something volunteers should either spend time developing beforehand or come with a willingness to improve upon.

No doubt, volunteers will encounter frustrating scenarios. Compounding any difficulties is the fact that volunteers usually don’t receive any compensation. So, setbacks can seem like an unnecessary burden to go through if there is no reward for “toughing it out.” However, setbacks are always temporary and, if volunteers stick with it, they will come to find challenges in their work as great opportunities to improve upon their patience.

That shouldn’t sound like nice “fluff” either. I completed two assignments in the Peace Corps working abroad with foreign ministries to improve local education standards. Often, projects would be delayed or halted due to bureaucratic procedures that I didn’t understand (or care to understand at the time). 

The first few times, it was incredibly frustrating. “Why make life so difficult for someone who’s volunteering their time.” I would think. But, ultimately, each experience led me to a deeper understanding of the priorities and values of the communities I was working in, which enriched the experience in a way that’s hard to capture in words.

Humility

It turns out that our motivations in getting involved make a big difference in what we get out of the experience. Research has shown that people who volunteer out of self-interest don’t experience the same gains in life-satisfaction and wellbeing than those who volunteer simply to give back.

This is why humility is so important. Getting in the mindset that service is, in and of itself, a reward can have dramatic impacts on performance and world views for volunteers. Staying humble and recognizing that the tasks assigned to you may seem small, laborious, tedious, or unsavory (to say the least), but they are important for the overall function of a program and/or community. 

Volunteers are asked to do what most aren’t willing to do. So, answering the call to service and setting aside your ego for the betterment of all won’t just make you a better volunteer – it will improve how satisfied you are with your life!

Integrity

Because volunteers are answering a call to service, we often view them as selfless model citizens. While the act of volunteering does show a lot of character, it doesn’t mean volunteers are all saints or impervious to making mistakes.

Organizations and communities can place a lot of trust in volunteers and it’s critically important that volunteers keep this in perspective – especially over the long haul. Maintaining a sense of duty can fade over time as volunteers get comfortable in their roles. Unfortunately, this means that some lose sight of their involvement and may be tempted to abuse access, privilege, or relationships. 

By focusing on the sense of duty and need for integrity, then, you can hedge against any temptations to abuse your role and potentially harm yourself, others, the organization, or your community.

Willingness to Learn and Try New Things

I find many people are hesitant to volunteer simply because they don’t know what to expect, but that should be part of the fun! Getting involved in your community should push the boundaries of your comfort zone. 

Research has shown that trying new things and putting yourself in unfamiliar social situations helps create new neural pathways in the brain. These new neural pathways can hedge against things like depression, social isolation, and even hearing loss.

While it’s important to give back in ways that interest you or that speak to your skillset, it’s also important to remain flexible and be open to taking on new responsibilities. Putting yourself in new situations or performing new tasks, then, is one of the best ways to take advantage of a volunteering opportunity.

Skills Developed BY Volunteering

Many studies have shown that volunteering can improve things like overall life satisfaction, social wellbeing, and can help combat things like depression and loneliness. Studies have also concluded that volunteering helps develop hard and soft professional skills as well as boost confidence and self-esteem. So, there is much to be gained from giving back.

What skills are acquired by volunteering will largely depend on the nature of the role and activities. However, there are a few skills that will undoubtedly be strengthened by getting involved in a structured volunteer position. Below are four skill sets that volunteers will be able to exercise in the vast majority of roles.

Communication

Communication skills are one of those generic-sounding requirements listed on most job descriptions. Yet, good communication skills can be hard to find. It’s not uncommon to come across brilliant individuals with a lot of technical knowledge but who lack basic skills like the ability to express themselves, coordinate with others, or to incorporate feedback.

Skills that fall under this category are often referred to as emotional or social intelligence, which has been shown to be a bigger predictor of success later in life than standardized test scores.

Volunteering is the perfect way to build your communication skills and emotional intelligence as you interact with your coordinators, peers, and community. Even when the work is centered around menial tasks, you’ll have to communicate with others to complete any project. If you take it seriously, then, these moments of coordination represent opportunities to improve upon one of the most important skillsets for professional and personal success.

Time Management

An ancient Greek philosopher named Theophrastus once remarked that

Time is the most valuable thing a man can spend.

Sadly, that truth is something few people come to appreciate, but those that do usually end up being top performers in their professions.

Learning how to effectively manage your time is something that can be learned. Volunteering is a perfect catalyst for people to begin thoughtfully approaching how they use their time. Volunteers will have to manage how they handle their tasks while “on the clock” and will need to juggle their volunteer hours with the rest of life’s responsibilities. 

While adding more commitments to your schedule can feel like a burden at times, it can also be very empowering to push yourself toward “maximum efficiency” in your life and your career. Volunteering, then, can give you a big boost in managing one of life’s most precious resources – time.

Problem Solving

The benefit of putting yourself in new situations and taking on new tasks (as advocated for above) comes with an increased ability to problem-solve. Like communication skills, problem-solving skills can sound vague, but they become very apparent when something unexpected occurs.

Resourcefulness is one of the many expressions of problem-solving and it’s a trait that can gain you great advantages in life and the workplace. Saving money and “doing more with less” is an ever-increasing mantra among families and companies. Volunteering will no doubt teach you how to make the most of what you have.

Relationship Building

As mentioned above, volunteering can improve social wellbeing and emotional intelligence which are instrumental for achieving personal and professional success. These skills also help build social relationships as well, which has important implications for our life and career outcomes.

Learning how to build relationships is not just important for collaborative problem solving and teamwork, it’s an important factor in our mental health and feelings of security too. Volunteer work presents a perfect opportunity, then, to improve on your relationship building skills as you work with your peers, coordinators, and the community. 

Many have commented, anecdotally at least, that there is usually a natural bond among those who volunteer together. Probably because volunteers likely share the same interests and values as well as share common service-orientated experience.

I remember before I left for my first Peace Corps assignment, my cohort and I were told that we would “one day hold each other’s babies.” We laughed awkwardly at the time. Today, long after we completed our assignments, one of us will inevitabely bring that story up when someone in the group has a new baby to hold.

Looking to get involved? Check out our post on community involvement for more.

Dan Jasper

Dan Jasper is the founder and primary author of Street Civics. He specializes in advocacy and international affairs.

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