Improving Transferable Skills through Volunteering

How Using a Hammer and Nails Helped Me Build Project Management Skills.

When I moved from working in the classroom to working in the cubicle, I noticed that I was leveraging a great number of the lessons I learned as a teacher in my new corporate gig. There are a great number of transferrable skills that a good teacher possesses that are attractive to Corporate America.

In my new world, I noticed project management skills were highly sought after. I struggled to find a way to prove to the business world that teachers are also project managers. So, I decided to take what I learned to a different forum – community service. The sad truth is that lots of people want to volunteer, but very few actually want to lead those volunteer efforts. The project manager role is essential. For any volunteer project to be successful, it needs a good leader. If you’ve volunteered, you may be ready to take that next step, and trust me, no one is going to hold you back but YOU.

This article contains a few ideas about how you can obtain or sharpen your project management skills through volunteering.

What’s the Plan, Stan?

Before beginning any project, you need to have a solid plan. This means knowing your key objectives, identifying the timeline and outlining your communication strategy. You’ll keep coming back to these items throughout the project. So, a firm foundation is essential. While you’ll want to give yourself some flexibility to revise the plan, it needs to be designed well enough that you will not need to rewrite it.

Just Tell Me What I Need to Know

Volunteers want details. As the leader of the project, you are responsible for gathering this information and disseminating it to your volunteer crew. Being detail-oriented means that you are thinking ahead and putting yourself in the shoes of the volunteers. What will they want to know? What do they need to know? Answering questions is easier with experience because you are better able to anticipate questions and concerns.

However, use details with caution because there is such a thing as too many details. You can drive people crazy telling them all kinds of things that they do not need to know or do not care about. Balance the information the charity provides with the information that will be important to your audience.

I’ve always found it helpful to use the common 5W questions (and how) in order to ensure I have provided the right details before I send an email. Here’s an example:

  • Who can participate?
  • What will volunteers accomplish? What will they need to wear or bring?
  • When do volunteers need to be there and when can they leave?
  • Where is the event and where do volunteers park?
  • Why is this event being held?
  • How is the work getting done? Individually? As a team?

Communication is Key – How to Say It, When to Say It

As a new project manager, I had a lot to learn. I’d get a question from a volunteer and then go back to the charity with one question at a time. Then, I’d communicate the answers back to the team one at a time. Now, I take a different strategy and send a set of questions to my charity partner. Then, I can disseminate that message back to the team with targeted timing, according to the project timeline. You will have to pay attention to the questions, though. If someone has an urgent question or the answer is going to delay their registration, it’s best to prioritize those questions and respond immediately.

A good project manager also manages the details and times the delivery of the information according to the current status of the project. Sure, I can tell everyone where they will park for the event two or three months in advance. However, if I do, they’ll lose that communication or forget. They really don’t care about parking until immediately prior to the event. Knowing when to communicate your message is as important as what you have to say.

Who’s in Charge Around Here?

General management and leadership skills are a must for any project manager. During the planning period, you’ll find that you are doing a lot of negotiating, persuading and coordinating. You may have to “give a little” to get a better response from your volunteers. For example, I’ve always been as flexible as I can with arrival and departure times. If someone mentions that they need to arrive a half hour later, I’d prefer to have their help for the remainder of the event, rather than turn down their offer altogether. To be successful at negotiating, you need to know your parameters. Think about the minimum number of people and the minimum number of hours that it will take to complete the project. Being flexible is good, but it won’t help to let someone join the group late if everyone else is going to have to wait until they arrive to start.

If you want to engage a large number of volunteers or need to raise a lot of money, you may have to sink your teeth into some persuasion skills. Some folks are reluctant at first, but they sometimes want to know that you really want them to participate. People like to feel special. Don’t be afraid to go that extra mile to convince a reluctant volunteer that they are needed and appreciated. Being in charge means that I take ownership for the roster and I make sure everyone knows the goals of the project. For example, if I don’t have enough volunteers at first, I’ll hustle until I convince enough volunteers instead of just giving up and cancelling the event.

Analyze This!

If you really want to make an impact, be prepared to do a little analytics. Volunteers who are signing up for an event will be inspired by data about the organization, the event, or the goals of the project. Remember that not everyone absorbs information the same way. Provide numbers, graphs and even photos or video.

As the roster grows, keep the team informed. Let them know how many volunteers are on board and how many more you need. Providing regular data points to the team can inspire them to reach out to their contacts so the team can meet the goal. No one likes to be pestered for money. So, I recommend being especially thoughtful about the message and frequency with which you are communicating fundraising goals and results.

Above all, be sure to communicate results after the event. Everyone wants to know how their efforts made a difference. Make sure to provide information about how many volunteers participated, the results of the project, and the amount of money that was raised. This makes people feel appreciated and it will inspire them to volunteer again in the future.

Solution Fever

Project managers are problem solvers. Undoubtedly, I suffer from Solution Fever. I see every possible obstacle as a puzzle I can solve and I’m not afraid to dive right in. Don’t get too discouraged if the project hits a few speedbumps or you have a complainer or two in the bunch. Dealing with the problems and difficulties is just as important in sharpening your project management skills as all the coordinating and planning skills.

Sometimes, life just happens. I once coordinated a charity walk for fellow employees that didn’t quite go according to plan. The charity chose to hold the event in November in Ohio, which can be a month of all types of weather. That particular year we had an ice storm and several volunteers were either late or didn’t show at all due to the weather. The walk did carry on and in the end, the charity (and me) walked away with some lessons learned. To be a great problem-solver you need to prioritize and focus on the things you can control. I couldn’t change the event date and I couldn’t stop the ice storm. However, I could be the one to follow through on my promise and show up for the event. My biggest lesson from this event was to take it as it comes and learn from each experience.

Projects come in all sizes and flavors. Project management in my corporate job is different than coordinating a volunteer event in a lot of ways. However, the skills that I need to navigate a project remain the same, no matter the topic of the particular project. Coordinating volunteer projects for my coworkers gave me a way to build project management skills that was visible to my management. Whether I realized it at the time or not, I was building my skills and growing as an employee, too. That growth was noticeable (and appreciated) by my managers and it was instrumental in helping me work my way up to what came next in my career.

I continue to volunteer and to lead volunteer events because I love doing it. What’s next for me? Now, it’s my mission to inspire others to lead, which is what this article series is meant to do. Who knows what lessons I’ll learn from this next phase, but I know it’s going to be a lot of fun along the way!

Photo credit: “Forge Yourself” via photopin license.