Image: Monique Carswell/The Well (Jopwell)
Having worked in social impact marketing, brand strategy, and diversity and inclusion at both for-profit and nonprofit organizations, giving back has very much been built into my career. But beyond being part of my day job, I believe in being consistently active in civic and community organizations. This means that I spend my evenings focusing on causes I’m invested in, whether that means holding official positions for specific organizations or contributing in more informal ways when I don’t have the time to do more.
There’s a lot out there (and unfortunately only so many hours in a day). Here’s what I’ve learned about how to get – and stay – involved.
Make a list of two to four specific causes you are personally passionate about (e.g. youth homelessness, food waste, or military families). Then jot down a few skill sets you would like to put to use (or develop) outside your 9-to-5 (e.g. fundraising or public speaking).
Before committing yourself to any cause, calculate the number of hours per week or month that you can allocate to it and define what your contributions could be. Do you want to spend time volunteering with kids face-to-face, or would you prefer to be running an organization’s social media accounts behind the scenes? This upfront assessment will help you avoid signing yourself up for opportunities that don’t align with your interests and goals.
Let your friends and colleagues know about the types of initiatives and work you’re interested in and ask for referrals and introductions to people in those organizations. If there’s no one in your immediate circle who can help, pose a question on Facebook and crowdsource recommendations for places you should consider volunteering. Also, if you’re in New York City, check out Board Assist to learn which organizations are seeking board members.
Follow the social media profiles of organizations that interest you and subscribe to their email lists to 1) get a clearer idea of the work and 2) find out about upcoming events you can attend. If you see meet-ups of interest, check them out. Meet-ups are a breeding ground for industry and mission-driven networking, and even when the meet-up is for a specific organization, chances are that people there are involved with similar types of causes and initiatives too.
Once you have an understanding of the landscape of opportunities and what you naturally gravitate towards, make a short list of those you’d like to more seriously consider. Then start reaching out to schedule a few coffee meetings with key players or longstanding members. Write down five key questions beforehand, and ask everyone you speak with the same questions so you’re making an apples-to-apples comparison as you evaluate each organization or opportunity.
Once you’ve done all your “interviews,” it’s a good time to ask yourself:
Does the organization align with my interests and passions? Is the mission related to the initiatives I’m committed to supporting?
How will my time benefit others? Will I teach or learn something valuable?
When you have your answers, you’ll hopefully also have a clearer sense of your front-runner. From there, do what’s required to get started.
Too often, we’re tight-lipped about our lives and interests outside of work. But sharing your involvement with pursuits that give you meaning can prove fruitful on many levels. Some companies are even open to supporting employees’ extracurriculars in the form of comp time, matching gifts, donations, reimbursement for membership dues, etc.
Coworkers who know about how you’re contributing to organizations and causes may also turn to you for support and find opportunities to tap into your interests or expertise. When I was a junior-level staff member at a teen magazine, for example, everyone knew I enjoyed mentoring and volunteering, which made me the go-to person at the publication for community-related activities. This helped me hone my brand ambassador and networking skills.
Once you’ve signed on to work with a particular organization, set parameters and expectations up front. Put a realistic cap on how many hours you can devote and make sure everyone you’re working with understands your limits (and that they are noted on your calendar). On Sunday nights, I review my schedule for the week and make detailed calendar entries for the things I’ve committed to doing so that “work time” is devoted to each task. Whether it’s inviting my contacts to a gala I’m on the host committee for or creating and sending the agenda for a meeting I’m leading, there is real value associated with the time you’re dedicating – and if you don’t plan for it, it may not happen.
If you have limited time to spare, look for things you can be involved in virtually and that don’t require you to be at a certain place at a certain time. Or get creative with your contributions. I’m on one committee for a trade organization, and the standing meeting times initially conflicted with my teaching schedule. So, I asked for the agenda in advance, sent the chairperson my ideas to share with the group in my absence, and blocked time to read the meeting notes after the fact. The key is figuring out how you can contribute in your own way. This might mean offering up connections to your network, holding a quick call while you’re commuting, being a guest speaker, etc.
Still don’t think you can spare a few hours to get involved with and add value to an organization? Remember: Highly successful people make time for the things that are important.