Volunteering: How to Give Back and Grow Your Career

This article was originally a presentation talk I gave at Trade Me’s internal conference.

I strongly believe in the benefit of volunteering to grow yourself and your career.

So, I thought I’d share my lessons further by writing about it here. (I’ve modified the original content to suit this post.)

The serial volunteer


I call myself a ‘serial volunteer’ because I’ve been volunteering actively since 2010.

As you can see from my ‘Volunteer CV’, I’ve had a wide range of volunteer jobs — and that’s not even all of them!

During those years, I’ve been privileged to have been part of some amazing non-profit organisations and charities.

Although I’ve had some great volunteer jobs, to be honest, others have felt like a waste of time.

Read on to find out why I think it’s important to avoid time-wasting volunteer work, and how you can avoid them too.

Why do we volunteer?


But first, let me ask you — do you regularly volunteer, or have you volunteered in the past?

That’s awesome if you do, or have! *High-five*


If you are a volunteer, let me ask you another question — why do you volunteer?

Have you ever stopped and asked yourself why?

I personally like to volunteer for a few different reasons.


I like to help those who aren’t as fortunate as me, and I think the above comic sums up my point perfectly.

I’m pretty sure this is why most people volunteer as well.


The next biggest reason I volunteer is that I like to learn new skills. And volunteering is the perfect opportunity to do that.

I choose my volunteer work intentionally and strategically.

I look for skills and experience that I can gain for my career, professional development, or personal growth.

And the Stanford Social Innovation Review agrees with me too:

Discussions of the benefits of volunteerism typically focus on the impact such programs yield for their nonprofit beneficiaries, but perhaps more deserving of attention is the way such programs develop leadership talent within volunteers themselves…


And lastly, it feels good to volunteer and do something nice for my community.

In fact, London School of Economics studied the relationship between volunteering and measures of happiness and found that:

…people who volunteer report better health and greater happiness than people who do not…

Now, let me ask you again — why do you volunteer?

Have any of the reasons I mentioned above resonated with you too?

Or maybe you’re still not even convinced that volunteering is even your thing?

Based on my years of experience in volunteering, I’ve come to an idea that’s hopefully not too radical for anyone.

My ‘radical’ idea for volunteering


I think it’s OK to be a bit selfish when you’re volunteering.


I know that the words “selfish” and “volunteering” aren’t usually used together in a sentence.


What I mean by “be selfish” is to be conscious and picky about how you give your time, energy, and skills.

Don’t just say “yes” to every volunteer opportunity that comes your way.

Ask yourself first why you want to volunteer and what you want to gain from a volunteer role.

I know this sounds like it defeats the whole purpose of volunteering and doing good for your community – but hear me out!

Volunteering for an organisation that you don’t truly believe in, or doing a job that doesn’t maximise your skills and expertise, can have detrimental effects.

Happy volunteer

For example, let’s pretend that you’re a developer who loves to code in your spare time.

A charity will benefit from you a whole lot more if you can build them a website that attracts donors nationwide (or globally), as opposed to you bucket-shaking for donations on the street.

This would be a huge win for the charity who gets free access to specialised talent, and also for you by practising and building your skills.

Avoid the wrong volunteer jobs

Also, I’d hate for you to give up your time in a role that just wasn’t right for you.

One bad experience in the wrong volunteer role might put you off from volunteering altogether.

This sucks because charities would miss out on amazing volunteers like you, who could really make a difference.

Make a difference with volunteer work

On the other hand, image yourself in a volunteer job where you feel like you’re growing a lot and feeling appreciated for your hard work.

All of these positive reinforcements will encourage you to continue volunteering in the future.

So, how do we reach this nirvana of finding the perfect volunteer work for ourselves?

I have four steps for you.

Finding the perfect volunteer job


The first step is for you to make the decision that you’ll commit some time to volunteer.

Personally, I love volunteering and keeping busy. At any point in time, I usually have one or more volunteer jobs on top of my full-time job.

Every time I tell someone that I volunteer, they often wonder where I find the time for it.


Volunteering doesn’t actually take that much of my time. At most I’d usually volunteer for about 4 hours each week. That’s less than 10% of my spare time outside of work.

In fact, a research by Harvard Business Review found that volunteering makes people feel like they have more time.

Say whaaat?!

It sounds crazy, but it’s true.

I certainly feel this way when I’m volunteering because I feel that I’ve used my spare time effectively or productively.


Once you’ve decided to commit your spare time, your next step is to figure out why you want to volunteer.

For me, I usually like to volunteer to grow my leadership skills.


This is exactly why I took up the Lead Co-ordinator role to run the Breakfast Club for Dress for Success in 2013.

The Breakfast Club is a programme for disprivileged women, where they learn practical job-searching skills such as writing CVs or acing their job interviews.

In this role, I led two other Co-ordinator volunteers to help me run the programme. Through this experience, I learned a difficult lesson in leadership and communication.

One day, I emailed one of the volunteers to follow up on a task that she was responsible for.


I sent an email like the one above. Simple and concise, I thought.

Once the email was sent, I patted myself on the back for being efficient and organised. I thought I was being a good leader by letting her know that I was thinking of her and her work.

But the next time I met up with the volunteer, she was furious with me.

She thought my email was shockingly rude. And I was very confused.

I was racking my brain to remember what I had written in that email. But I couldn’t figure out how the email had made her so upset.

She continued to explain that I had missed some basic courtesy.

Apparently, my email was too cold and impolite, and that I should have written something more like this:


She told me that she was volunteering out of her precious, spare time and that she expected to be treated with respect.

And as the gracious and diplomatic leader that I am, my initial emotional reaction was…


…anger and frustration.

“Who does she think she is! What a piece of work! I wasn’t even being that rude!”, were my thoughts at the time.

But after some self-reflection, I realised that I had gained some valuable lessons.

Every single one of us views the world differently from one another.

As a leader, we need to acknowledge that everyone works, thinks, feels, and interprets things differently. And we need to adjust our leadership to best suit the people that we work with.

So, a simple message like this…


…can be easily interpreted by someone else like this…


After this incident, I’ve learned to be a lot more conscious about how I communicate, especially in emails.

I do my best to make sure that the other person wouldn’t misinterpret my message.

So, decide why you want to volunteer and hunt for roles that will help you achieve what you want.


The third step is to enjoy the weird and wonderful journey of volunteering.

Kimchi Club members at the Korean Ambassador’s place

This is back in 2012 when I was an active member of Kimchi Club, a non-profit group for professionals who are Korean or interested in Korean culture.

One night, a few of us from Kimchi Club were invited for dinner at the Korean Ambassador’s residence.

I was enjoying the amazing Korean dinner meal, cooked by the Ambassador’s personal chef. But I was surrounded by the Korean Ambassador, his wife, and a bunch of other Korean diplomats, which made me feel a little uptight and awkward.

Also, what I didn’t know was that the Korean Ambassador had a freakin’ karaoke room in his residence. It was also clear that it was mandatory for everyone to sing that night.

So, after dinner, we all got ushered into his karaoke room. Unsurprisingly, no one wanted to sing, let alone be the first one to start singing.

I bit the bullet, decided to take one for the team, and cued the song I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing by Aerosmith (my usual go-to karaoke jam).

Anyone who has been fortunate to go to karaoke with me will know that it is the universal truth that I cannot sing. My singing is so out of tune — there is no question about it.

But generally, Koreans are amazing at singing, and it was no exception for everyone else in the room.

As soon as everyone heard me sing, they must have thought, ‘Wow, if someone that terrible at singing is OK to sing in front of the Korean Ambassador, then I’m fine — I got this!’ and they all started cueing their songs.

I never got the microphone back for the rest of the night.

As crazy, weird, and awkward that experience was, I learned another lesson in leadership.

If you want your team to do something, but you sense fear and insecurity from them, be a role model and do the thing first in front of them. Let your team know that everything’s OK and show them how it’s done.

If they see you do it first and realise that bad things won’t happen, then they’ll follow.

You may come across awkward, random, and weird experiences like this during your volunteering. And that’s OK because volunteering is all about experiencing things that may be outside of your comfort zone.

When it happens, just remember to own it, embrace it, and know that you’ll have a great story to tell afterwards.


The last step is to now find your next volunteer role!


And there are so many places to find it. I’ve listed above some of the ways you can find your next volunteer role.

At the time I did this presentation, I was volunteering as the Operations Manager at TEDxWellington, and was shameless advertising for volunteers.


If you weren’t convinced about giving your time to volunteering before, I hope that my stories have shed some light on the benefits of volunteering.

If you already volunteer, I hope that you’d be more conscious of how to best give your time, energy, and skills to your community.

I hope that both you and I can come across lots of more opportunities to help others, grow ourselves, pick up awesome life stories, and meet incredible, inspiring people along the way.

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