What I Learned from Volunteering for 3 Years as the Leader of a Nonprofit Organization

For any small help you give, your rewards will multiply

Photo collage by Author. All photos are part of the UnstoppableMe library, taken by our volunteers.

“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” ~ African Proverb

My role evolved greatly in 2017 as I got involved in multiple activities with other volunteers to expand the organization. At the end of 2017, the Founder asked me if I wanted to be the next President. Like a lot of things in life, I saw a unique, strategic opportunity and said, “why not?” This was the start of a journey that taught me some invaluable lessons I summarized in this article.

Time is everyone’s most precious asset

Throughout these years, I learned that time is the most precious asset because it’s so scarce. As a volunteer, I had many responsibilities such as organizing events, delivering speeches, coordinating teams, writing on the blog, liaising with other organizations, and making sure that I communicated internally and externally. I also helped members who needed job search advice.

Photo collage by Author. All photos are part of the UnstoppableMe library, taken by our volunteers.

Overall, I dedicated approximately 5 to 20 hours per week to these volunteer activities. It was challenging to balance my full-time job, my personal life, and all these volunteer tasks, but totally worthwhile.

Any little action and time spent to help others produced a ripple effect and came back to me as thousand-fold rewards. On the other hand, prioritizing tasks and using the time wisely was critical to achieve meaningful results without burning out.

Good processes always help

When I joined the organization, most great ideas were only that, just ideas! In some cases, people were doing activities inconsistently and inefficiently. Given my background in Project Management and Human Resources, I was immediately “hands on deck” to set processes up while involving the other volunteers. Having other experienced project managers in the team was tremendously helpful to get things done on time and with almost zero budget.

This is where most nonprofit organizations and grassroots communities fail. You can have the most inspiring ideas in the world, but if nobody executes them with the proper effort and discipline, they’ll remain as ideas only. If processes are not your strongest point, hire a good project manager and your life will change!

A network of diverse professionals gave me diverse perspectives

The UnstoppableMe community was very diverse at the time I joined and continued adding more people from all backgrounds and walks of life. As of 2019, our members are originally from 59 countries.

Once I got to meet the members, I discovered there’s enormous value in knowing professionals in other industries, disciplines, and career stages. Until 2016, I tended to keep my network within the human resources profession because that’s what other HR people were doing. The members of UnstoppableMe taught me that by networking more broadly, I could expand my opportunities and perspectives.

Whenever I needed specific information during my job search, I was able to get direction and mentorship from members and fellow volunteers. I also learned about different customs and cultural perspectives that I wouldn’t have been exposed to if I were in another country. I leveraged this knowledge to write articles, give advice, and design workshops.

The enhanced visibility brought me opportunities without even asking for them

As I got involved in activities in the organization and with all partners across the not-for-profit sector, I made sure to showcase results on social media, especially on LinkedIn. My LinkedIn profile was pretty decent until then, but gained even more visibility after starting volunteering. Soon enough, I was approached to give presentations and volunteer in other capacities. As usual, my response was, “why not?” with some strategic goals in mind.

These are some notable examples of opportunities that just came to me without even asking:

Photo by PixelBooth.com taken at the TRIEC Immigrant Inclusion Summit 2019

The list goes on, and I could build a whole resume out of my volunteer activities only! After a couple years of doing all this work, I got some paid gigs in E-learning design and career coaching that I could not have ever imagined. Moreover, recently I got promoted at work thanks to all my experience in coaching job seekers.

If you’re volunteering, my advice would be: always take risks, get out of your comfort zone, and toot your own horn. Volunteering is part of your professional brand and, if done strategically, people will definitely notice it.

New skills gained

Throughout these years, I gained these new skills that I wouldn’t have learned in any of my regular jobs, such as:

  • Designing and publishing web pages in Wordpress and using SEO tools to boost posts;
  • Conducting marketing campaigns that increased the web traffic and visibility of all social media pages;
  • Building a long-term partnership with Xchange Ontario to charter a Toastmasters Club, and with LPMN to provide a learning space to discuss Project Management topics;
  • Writing two applications for Multi-cultural Community Capacity Grants, that were awarded by the Ontario Government.

I also acquired the PMP Certification thanks to the support of free study groups that benefited approximately 230 people.

I probably left out a few things, but all of these were part of a multi-year process. Volunteering works for you only if you put the effort with a giving heart and your personal goals are aligned with the big picture.

Final Thoughts

This was just a glimpse of how my “why not?” answers consistently expanded to bring immense opportunities.

If you’re feeling inspired and want to jump into some volunteering, please also consider that you have to be ready to commit and overcome some potential bumps on the road.

  • Take any volunteering role seriously, as if someone paid you. I can give many examples of people who over-promised and under-delivered… they got inspiration during a presentation and signed up to “change the world”, but as soon as assigning the actual work, they ghosted me! So please don’t do that. If you say you’ll volunteer, do your best to keep your word.
  • Be creative when facing barriers. I interacted with a few people who came to volunteer but only complained about the lack of processes or other people. In a situation of scarcity, don’t bring me more scarcity! Think how you want to be part of the solution by proposing new ideas and taking action to make them happen. If other volunteers are not doing their part, just reach out and offer to help them. Volunteering requires creativity and supporting the cause by using what you have.
  • Appreciate people’s efforts and celebrate the wins. This is especially important if you’re volunteering in a leadership position. Always say “Thank You” to other volunteers who complete small tasks. No task is too small when volunteering! Celebrate all wins and don’t forget to have fun!

By the way, you can find more tips in my article about Volunteering as an Internationally-Trained Professional in Canada.

What’s next for me?

I’m currently in planning mode for 2021, reflecting on where to head next. This year has been really tough and the planning process deserves some extra time for introspection.

For now, I’ll just express my full appreciation to everyone who has been part of my 3-year journey as an Unstoppable President.

THANK YOU for being there!

HR Project Manager with experience living and working in Argentina, Japan and Canada. Life-long learner, world traveler, writer, coach and avid networker.

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