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Friday, September 25, 2015

A Word From Our Board...

How Volunteering can Help Your Career - with a Twist!!

We're excited to launch a new monthly post on The Lowercase d - each month we'll hear from a Lime Connect board member on a topic that's important to them. This month David Fisher, who sits on Lime's Canada board, shares why volunteering has always been important to him...and why it can actually help your career!                             

How Volunteering can Help Your Career - with a Twist!!

There have been a number of articles, op-eds, news stories and so on written lately about the benefits of volunteering. Your community, the organization you volunteer for, and even your family and personal life benefit. But what about your career? Simply Google “Volunteer/Benefits /Career” and an almost unending number of hits come up. In this piece, I’d like to concentrate on my take on whether volunteering can help your career – with a twist. What’s the twist? Well, you also have a disability.

                I have a visible disability that somewhat limits my mobility, but I have volunteered at many levels for nearly 30 years. Many have asked me if my mobility was a hindrance with volunteering and with my career. My standard answer is that it is no more a hindrance than wearing glasses or having a hearing aid. In fact, having a disability gives you an advantage over many volunteers if you happen to volunteer with an organization that deals with your particular disability because you have a special insight that others don’t have and you have experiences that you can use to help others understand the situation in greater depth.

                That said, what if you have just graduated or just landed a new job and you’re getting your career under way? Will volunteering help in this circumstance?  Below, I’d like to offer just a few thoughts as to what the benefits can be. This is by no means an exhaustive list – as evidenced by the multitude of Google hits but takes into account some of my thinking around disability, your career and volunteering.

  1. – Diversion – I think it’s safe to say that many people don’t really understand how you have had to work to succeed at the university level with a disability. Most graduates with disabilities that I know have developed somewhat of a laser focus on how to compensate for their disability and get good marks so that they are attractive to potential employers. And most of these graduates know that you have to stand out even a little further from the crowd to be chosen. Now you’re working and that same laser focus is being applied to your new job to learn it as quickly as you can and show the organization, your boss, your co-workers and yourself that you do have the skills and will do a good job. That usually means very long hours, taking work home at night, working weekends and extra concentration on all parts of the job. You’re willing to do this as long as necessary to “prove” yourself. Eventually, that takes a toll – more so mentally that physically.

That’s where volunteering comes in to play. Taking time off from that self-imposed grind and effort to show your disability is not a factor and allowing your mind to be directed to the needs of others provides that necessary diversion and break that not only refreshed but recharges. You are better able to resume that focus and effort at work but know that that next break is coming soon and that you are making a difference in someone’s life at the same time. Everyone treats volunteering differently, but I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to say that these volunteer efforts can have a positive impact on your mental health as well.

  1. – Friends and Contacts – You have known most of your life about the benefits of having friends and you have developed a cadre of friends and colleagues at University that you will have for years to come. On top of that, you probably have a whole different set of friends from your disability group and these are true and fast friends. Now, on the job, you are developing another set of friends and colleagues (there is a difference – think about it!!) in a professional setting. Again, I’m sure your professors have told you about the value of friends in the business world but emphasized making them contacts as well. I never cease to be amazed by where some people I met in my first few years at my job have gone on to and what diverse careers have come from where we all started at the same time and doing virtually the same job. I still have lunch regularly with friends/contacts from 30 years ago, even though some are now retired.

The same can be said about volunteer friends and contacts. Once you start volunteering and make a new set of friends, your disability will become irrelevant and you will be given an insight into numerous different organizations and how they operate. You will relate to these people on a different level than those at work and will learn about what each of them does and why they volunteer. In my experience, many of these volunteers themselves have a disability which motivated them to volunteer in the first place. This can only broaden your own horizons and help you then relate better with your present friends and contacts. Eventually, you will end up with a broad number of friend sets from all different walks of life. Does this help your career?  I have found that broadening my friend/contact sets has made a big difference. I have been offered 2 or 3 different job chances over the years strictly as a result of a contact made at a volunteer organization. While I haven’t taken any of them, at least one caused me to have many hours of introspection before declining.

  1. – Learning other Organizations – You took the job you did because you felt at the time it was the best opportunity for you and you are now working hard to succeed. Part of that is learning how your own organization operates, how different areas interact with each other – in short, office politics. While that phrase is hard to pin down and as close to impossible as anything to define, you know full well it exists and you are slowly figuring it out and realizing that your disability makes no difference as to how you fit in the organization. As you get to know more senior people, you realize it is even more complicated that you thought but, in time, the pieces become clearer.

Now, you get involved in a volunteer organization and a whole new world opens up. By their very nature, volunteer organizations operate much differently than yours and the need to understand that and how you can fit into that grid becomes important. As you get to know it better, you realize that there are, in fact, many other ways to run an organization as opposed to how your own is being run. You may even learn something about organizational behavior that can be applied to your own place of work. Like the broadening of your contact list, the broadening of your knowledge of how different organizations operate can do nothing but help you as you navigate your own career. This understanding and application is unaffected by your disability but, with your insight as a result of your disability, you can offer even more to both groups, which will ultimately help in career development.

  1. – Skill Set Development - You already have a lot of skills that you brought to the job and you are now learning a whole lot more. Obviously, the more new skills you develop and apply, the better you will do on the job. You already have a serious advantage in many ways because your disability offers a set of skills you have developed that few can understand or know how to apply. However, don’t be seduced into thinking you can ever learn them all or that you can “master” the job. Even the so-called subject matter experts will freely admit they have volumes to learn and the honest ones will tell you they are only about 2 or 3 steps ahead of everyone else.I firmly believe in the concept of life-long learning and feel if you stop trying to learn more and acquire new skills, you will stagnate on the job and it will reflect in your performance. Plus, frankly, it’s fun to learn things and apply them to your life and work.

Therein lies the beauty of volunteering. Given the completely different nature of the organization, you get to see first  hand how different skill sets are applied in what they do and how they incorporate different skills into that effort. Given you can theoretically walk away from a volunteer position at any time and you don’t actually report to a boss on a formal basis, you now see how a whole different skill is needed to actually get volunteers to get things done efficiently and effectively. If you get the chance to supervise volunteers, this will become even more important when they can tell you where to go in a moment if you don’t learn this well. These different skills and the application of them will, again, only help you in your own career as you develop and, as a person with a disability, you are realizing that your disability makes no difference in your application of skills in whatever setting you find yourself, professional or volunteer.

These are a few random thoughts and by no means comprehensive on how having a disability and volunteering while carrying a full time position can ultimately help in your career. A word of caution, don’t volunteer simply because you think it will help your career. Volunteering means you have a passion for a cause and you really feel you can make a difference. If you do have that passion, either because of your disability or simply because you love and respect the cause, the help to your career will follow in due course. Remember, your first duty is to the person that puts money in your account regularly, but your volunteer work will provide you with that inner satisfaction that few other pursuits can provide. Most of all, have fun at both!!

David Fisher


posted By Jennifer LaRusso-Leung | 12:00 AM | 0 comments < Previous Post     Next Post >

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