Someone recently asked me this question:
“I’m new to the area, and I have an MBA. I’d like to help things change for the better, but I don’t want to spend time volunteering to stuff envelopes or walking dogs. I want to be a leader.”
I get it. Time is limited, and talented people with specific skill sets bring a lot to the table for struggling non-profits in need of strategic planning, finance, fund development, or marketing assistance. Why would we want to “waste” hours that could be spent tackling thorny management issues?
On the other hand, do you want someone to jump in and start offering you advice if they don’t know you at all? Imagine receiving parenting tips from someone that doesn’t know how old your children are or medical advice from a professional related to a disease you don’t have.
The “getting to know you” phase with a doctor, therapist, or any other kind of service is important. My plumber needs to know how old my house is. I have to explain the boundaries of my property to someone mowing my lawn. My stylist needs to know I look terrible with bangs.
Somewhere along the line, we move on from small talk to the heart of the matter. Once we feel comfortable with a provider, we seek out their advice. But not until we trust them.
The same is true for mission-driven organizations. They want lots of help with their website. They see their rusty old value statement staring at them like a relic from the ‘80s too. They are keenly aware that the traffic flow through their office/food pantry/day care center is cumbersome.
But they want help from trusted friends. They want board members and committee chairs that understand their brand, share their vision, and have spent some time navigating those cluttered hallways. They want to commiserate and laugh with you, rather than feeling scolded or put down.
So, here is my answer to that great question:
It’s okay to deal with some paper cuts or muddy dog prints on your pants. Find a cause that speaks to you, so the volunteer hours feel exciting and effortless. Get to know the people serving and served by the organization. Take your volunteer assignment seriously, which means being on-time and just as engaged with the task as you would be at work. I promise it will not take long for them to recognize your abilities and ask you to get involved in more strategic roles. But there are no shortcuts to leadership. Trust takes time.