Volunteering: Using Your Passion to Accelerate Your Career

My passion is using design to make a positive impact on the world. It took me a number of years to discover this passion, but I eventually recognized it by combining two aspects of my life that have always been with me: my natural desire to lead and my love for design.

My leadership development started at a young age. I have two younger twin brothers, and I quickly grew into the role of an influential leader to them. My love of design goes back even further ... for as long as I can remember, actually. I was that kid in class who always volunteered to draw on the board. In high school, I even won a National Graphic Design competition.

Throughout my life, I have fostered my passion in different ways, but mostly through volunteering. One organization that has grown close to my heart is AIGA, the professional association for design. I have volunteered with this organization in different capacities for many years, and I currently serve as the president of AIGA Indianapolis. I have come to realize that in addition to fueling my passion, my volunteer experiences have had a profound impact on my career.

Volunteering for career growth: Where to begin?

I want to break down why furthering your passion through volunteerism can help you accelerate your career in the same way.

A quick Google search on “how to accelerate your career” reveals a consistent theme. Nearly every result says that you need to gain three things: more contacts, more skills and more education.

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That’s great in theory, but you probably don’t have the time or money to go back to school; you most likely do not have many opportunities for learning new skills; and you hate going to networking events to meet new random people. Let's face it, we are all busy people, so how do we take our career to the next step?

This is where volunteering and capitalizing on your passion can guide you to improving in all three of these areas (contacts, skills, education) in a manageable way.

How volunteering helps grow your career

1. You build contacts with important people.

Volunteering connects you with other leaders and people in the community simply through sharing a goal and determining how to accomplish it. This could be other members of your committee or people you have to reach out to for support. Reaching out on behalf of your cause—and not just yourself—could connect you to people you might not otherwise have the opportunity to speak with.

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For example, in organizing a leadership breakfast each year, I am able to meet with respected design leaders from the community who I otherwise would probably not meet due to their busy schedules.

Be sure to keep a list of the contacts you make while volunteering. You never know who might help you and how.

2. You build skills and get real-world education.

Volunteering equips you with skills you may not develop within your current job, yet need to have in order to advance in your career. Sign up for roles a little outside of your comfort zone — a role that might require you to recruit a team, run a meeting, or ask for sponsorship dollars.

You could also acquire more tactical skills, too, such as learning a new software program or how to create a social media calendar. The possibilities are endless.

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Alternatively, do you already have a certain skill, but want to be more proficient at it? Your role may be an outlet to use the skills you currently have in a different way in order to get stronger.

Additionally, volunteering could get you out of your day-to-day routine and allow you to gain new perspectives on problems. You might be able to experience how things work in a new industry or business vertical.

3. You gain self-awareness.

One of the greatest things volunteering can help you achieve is knowing yourself better. Knowing what skills, knowledge and value you bring to the table is the foundation for your career success.

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By knowing this, you develop a greater sense of how other people view you and your strengths outside of your coworkers. Your volunteer experience is a good way to understand your full potential, and help you determine your future career path.

It's never too late to volunteer and grow Your Career

It’s never too late to get involved , even if you’re already busy. In fact, it’s crucial to your career that you do.

Think back to filling out your college application. You most likely included your involvement in high school activities because colleges wanted see that you were learning outside the classroom. Somewhere along the line, we stopped doing extracurricular activities and the hobbies we cared most about, which also means we stopped learning outside the classroom.

Employers, after all, care about the things you are involved with and passionate about just as much as colleges did.

M.T. Ray, former vice president of talent at High Alpha, says, “When assessing talent, we look at a well-rounded person . Not only their work history and ability to do the job, but also their initiative and involvement outside of work that exemplifies leadership and their passion for a cause . We like a balanced employee.”

However, the secret sauce is that you have to choose a volunteer role for something you really care about. I repeat, choose a volunteer role for something you really care about! This is important because if you don’t really care about what your helping with, it will feel like another job, not a labor of love.

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Volunteering does take your time and effort, so you want to make sure it is rewarding. Above all, you will be helping a cause that you really care about, so it won’t ever be wasted time. Ultimately, you’ll be more appealing to employers through volunteering because it shows your passion, your initiative and a dedication to furthering your education, skills and contacts.

Ultimately, you’ll appeal more to employers through volunteering because it shows your passion, initiative and dedication to furthering your contacts, skills and education.


Kolby McElvain believes in the power of design to make a positive impact on the world. She is a member of the design team at High Alpha and Studio Science, and is also president of AIGA Indianapolis. Say hi to Kolby on Twitter .


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