Volunteering your skill set can have some surprising benefits
Last updated September 21, 2021
Selfishness is underrated. Wait—hear me out! Giving, giving, giving is a surefire path to burning out. We have to take care of ourselves in order to take care of others. More than that, focusing on our own growth and expansion not only honors our individual potential but also increases our capacity for empathy and giving back.
But sometimes the way to grow ourselves is to give back. If you’re new to volunteering, you might think it’s a one-way street: all give and no take. Wrong. Helping others is also a great way to help yourself, and here are a few surprising volunteer opportunities that have also had surprising benefits.
But sometimes the way to grow ourselves is to give back.
Create great connections
Bringing talented people together is in itself an act of creativity with unlimited potential. Taylor Skillin, executive assistant to the CEO at Zendesk, is also a founding member of St. Anthony’s Young Professionals Council. In the early days of that project, the founders focused on trying to “appeal to people with a diverse background of skill sets, experience, and ambition in a way that would make them want to come in to the fold.” Skillin says he and colleagues “treated the process with a lot of integrity.” The council is now a space where people can plug in—members often commit to certain levels of time each month—and further the conversation on poverty and homelessness through activities suited to their interests and skill sets. The council calls for “writers, designers, developers, tinkerers, public servants” to add their voice and value to the group. Now the council is “a sustained thing that creates opportunities that then draw others in,” says Skillin.
In 2014, artist Reina Takahashi created a treasure map display for a San Francisco storefront window of 826 Valencia, a nonprofit that supports under-resourced students in developing their writing skills and helps teachers inspire students to write. “That display was a huge team effort, as I called on a lot of my friends to help out. I came home one day to find my roommates all gathered around the dining table, building dozens of paper trees, and other friends took it upon themselves to pick up pizzas for those of us installing it,” she told 826. “That window still remains my favorite…because it brought such a supportive community together.”
Foster career growth
Lila Cutter, volunteer coordinator at 826 Valencia, started out as… a volunteer. Back in 2013, she was an intern. Passionate about writing and social justice and community, Cutter was seeking out ways that those different interests could overlap. “Then I discovered 826 Valencia, and that internship honestly shifted my career trajectory,” she says. “It shifted what I studied in school and where I wanted to go, and where I wanted to head was really back to 826.”
Over time, Skillin realized how much he was passionate about “impacting my neighborhood and community in a positive way,” and liked the idea of staying tied to his work at St. Anthony’s while looping in the resources and influence of Zendesk. “I ended up at Zendesk because volunteering is such an integral part of the culture,” he says. “I came for a culture rooted in active participation in all our communities we have offices, in caring about our neighbors.”
Takahashi looks back at that treasure-map window display and sees a clear link to her own professional development. “It was my biggest project to date, and I was terrified.” To that point, she had never done a window installation or exhibited her work in public. “It’s the project I credit with jump-starting my career in paper art,” she told 826.
Spend time doing what you love
If you’re lucky, what you do in your job overlaps significantly with what you would do with or without bills to pay—or maybe volunteering actually has shaped your career, as it has with Cutter, Skillin, and Takahashi. But if it isn’t or hasn’t, volunteering can also keep the fires of professional interests burning, especially in times of life transitions.
Quite a few volunteers at 826 are retired teachers or artists, who can continue to live out their passions and enjoy their interests while giving back, says Cutter.
Volunteer tutor Dan Doherty benefits from his time helping kids. He spent his 75th birthday helping two brothers with a story and podcast about Mr. Nibbles, a small stuffed lamb. And the volunteering helps him with other passions too. “Finding the Tenderloin Center was a real bonus since I walk there every day with the purpose of exercising,” he told 826, “helping to keep me healthy and going forward.”