How To Effectively Use Volunteer Organizations To Network In Your Community

volunteer workDuring one of my many post-college, “What-on-earth-am-I-doing-with-my-life” jobs, I worked in management and sales for a women’s fitness center. I had been teaching Pilates classes there for extra money and just sort of fell into this position within the small franchise. In an attempt to grow the business, we incorporated a weight loss meal plan. It was my job to attend training and certification for the new program.

I expected to be learning about nutrition and dietary concerns when I packed into a crowded training session with a bunch of other gym owners. Instead, I was treated to their company policy on marketing and advertising. Volunteer, volunteer, volunteer.

For three days, I learned that the more you volunteer in your community, the better off your small business will be. They recommended spending your weekends with recreation centers or at church functions. Volunteer and of course, pass out your company’s information to everyone you come in contact with. It was even better if you could get everyone to sign up for some special giveaway, because then you had an excuse to collect everyone’s personal information.

In the beginning, I was a little put off by their use of volunteerism and community activism to turn a profit. After all, they weren’t really concerned with any Church fundraiser or Park clean-up. They just wanted a free opportunity to sell to the public, all with the guise of good spirit attached to it. I was skeptical of the morality behind volunteering to help the bottom line.

However, the more familiar I became with the business world, the more I understood that charitable works are often done in the name of profit margins. In fact, I learned that not only was my former “weight loss training” a pretty common business practice, they weren’t even doing a great job of it.

A close friend of  mine owns a small business. A couple of years ago, she decided to get involved with our city’s Downtown Improvement District. I was surprised by her choice of volunteer organization, since she lives in the country outside of the city and located her business in the suburbs.

“My biggest clients have buildings downtown. And even the ones who aren’t involved with the DID themselves attend their functions. It’s kind of the perfect way for me to network.” It made logical business sense and it gives her a way to connect with her customers in an informal setting.

The more I thought about volunteerism and business, the more I thought that I should give some advice on the subject. Just in case you received some sub-par training like I did, here are the real ways to utilize community service efforts in your career.

  • Quality over Quantity. Don’t sign up for every charitable organization within a twenty mile area. You’ll run yourself ragged and you’ll get less return for your work. Pick one or two key organizations and become a regular supporter. You’ll grow a base of associates and you’ll make a better impression on the people you do come into contact with. And if you’re trying to build a charitable reputation, having actual accomplishments come from your volunteer work will definitely lend some credibility.
  • Choose organizations that align with your business. My friend probably would’ve been happier with some hours at the Animal Rescue Clinic or cleaning up at State Park. She’s an outdoors girl. But she found an organization that allowed her to network with her clients. If you’re looking for volunteer work that will help your business, you need to go somewhere that coincides with your industry. If you’re volunteering simply for pleasure, then you pick whatever you want.
  • Time over Money. Throwing checks at a company probably won’t do you a whole lot of good when it comes to business relationships. Sure, everyone likes money. But if you’re trying to network, you need to spend time working with the people in the community. Roll up your sleeves and get to work, that’s the best way to maximize the return on your investment.
(Photo: Inhabitat)
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