5 Skills I Learned Through Volunteering
Updated: Mar 25, 2022
I have volunteered on a regular basis for most of my life. I volunteered for my local museum during high school and in college as a tutor. I also have recently committed to volunteering at least twice a month at my local animal shelter. I love volunteering. It not only helps the organization I'm volunteering but I also learn valuable skills. Especially when I was too young to work but wanted experience being in a working environment.
I want to include a caveat. I understand not everyone has the time or financial ability to volunteer regularly. I have been lucky enough to have the opportunity to volunteer throughout most of my life.
I'll be diving into 5 skills I've learned through volunteering:
Communication - communicate effectively
Assertive - becoming more assertive (confident) in my behavior
Training - teaching others
Teamwork - work with others
Commitment - dedicate yourself to a cause or activity
I've always been naturally shy. I was reluctant to talk with new people and worried about how they perceived me. When I began volunteering at my local museum in my hometown, I was too scared to talk to any guests. We had educational stations where we would talk to the public about nature, science, or wildlife. The idea was to get guests to come over and learn about what we were presenting on. In the beginning was too scared to even get one person over. I was the person who tried to hide behind other volunteers (sometimes we we worked in groups). I was not an outgoing person.
My supervisor at the time encouraged me to start with one person. If I could talk to one guest during my shift then I could consider the day successful. I began slowly. Gathering up the courage to talk with someone who seemed nice and interested. Because I was young most people would indulge me and listen to my presentation. Over time my confidence began to grow with each guest I talked to. Soon I was able to present information clearly and speak confidently to guests. I improved my speaking ability by increasing my volume (I would often talk too quietly) and my cadence (I had a habit of talking fast).
I figured out the way to make a conversation successful, is to listen first. Like habit 5 in Stephen Covey's book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Which is: seek first to understand, then to be understood. Instead of thinking about what you can gain from the conversation/relationship. Think about what you can provide them. Put understanding them first. Once they feel like they've been heard, that you actually care about them or what they're talking about, the more likely they will be receptive to you.
Listening became one of my biggest skills. It was the first step I learned to communicate effectively. Whether that be with other guests or with my fellow volunteers.
#2 Assert Myself
Like the point above, I was afraid of saying the wrong thing. I was afraid of standing up for myself and would often let others push me around to avoid conflict. But being a teen volunteer taught me how to assert myself around others. This isn't about being mean or forceful, but rather about enforcing and explaining boundaries. I talked about this in another article but my first animal show as an usher I was too afraid to enforce the rules. I wanted to avoid conflict. I got in trouble after my first show because of this. I was too afraid to speak up. My first solution was to avoid conflict all-together, and never sign up for this event. But that didn't last long since we had to "rotate" to different stations in the museum.
Instead what I did was adopt a different persona of a volunteer that had the guts to enforce the rules. I envisioned myself as a different person, like adopting a secret identity. Before each show I would put on a "mask" and acted as this person. By doing this it let me not only enforce the rules but go up to guests and strike up conversations with them. At first I started out with one or two guests. But after time and as my confidence grew I began talking to larger groups. The show ran smoothly and my fear decreased.
Even now while volunteering at my local animal shelter I adopt this persona to enforce rules. This has not only helped my volunteer performance but let me assert my own boundaries in my personal life.
I was never a good teacher before volunteering. I talked rapidly and moved through the subject too fast. I used jargon people didn't understand. Because of my ADHD my mind works quickly. I thought other people were too slow. Teaching is a skill, a difficult one to master but an invaluable one. During my time as a teen volunteer I had to train other volunteers how to do certain tasks. At first it was a struggle, I didn't understand why they weren't getting it. Until I got feedback from my fellow volunteers and supervisor. They taught me how to teach. I learned a few skills necessary for teaching like explaining every step; and checking in with the learner.
When I was training to become a lead volunteer with my local animal shelter I had to shadow other leads. The problem was because they were experienced leads things that seemed trivial and natural to them, were difficult for me. I made note of what I got confused with. It gave me reminders on what to explain to new leads.
This was the beginning for my love of teaching. And one of the reasons why I am drawn to data analytics. I love explaining complex topics (in this case data) to be understandable for others. It's why I studied to become a teacher in college. Even though I ended up not wanting to become a teacher in a public school system. I still love teaching others, and now I've gone back to that part-time by becoming a math tutor.
Volunteering attracts a variety of people. In the teen volunteer program at my local museum it was a mix of people whose parents forced them to be there (to look better on college applications) or those who enjoyed it (like me). At the animal shelter it's people who have a passion for helping animals. When I was a teen volunteer if I didn't like someone I would try to avoid them as much as possible. But that wasn't always practical. I had to work with people I didn't like. I learned how to do it. One method is to focus on the task at hand, rather than what I disliked about them. While it isn't possible to only work with people you like, you can work with almost anyone.
Being able to communicate with others is also a major reason why I'm able to work with anyone. Even if I don't enjoy working with some people, I am able to now because of my volunteering experience.
This last one might be a testament to how my parents raised me (thanks mom and dad). But back when I was a teen volunteer for the year-round program we had 2, 3 hour shifts every month. 6 hours in total of volunteering per month. We could choose the morning or afternoon shift. We were volunteers, so everything was optional, they made it known how important it was to show up for your shift. Even if you couldn't, try to get a replacement to be there instead.
Regardless of how I felt that day, whether I was tired or didn't want to see anyone. I showed up for my shift, unless I was sick or gave prior notice. I became known as the reliable volunteer. Even when I was a teenager and could drive I made sure I showed up. I knew the importance of showing up.
I have had the privilege of being able to volunteer pretty regularly throughout my life. It taught me so many valuable lessons and gave me a sense of accomplishment. After taking a break from volunteering, I went back to it and fell in love with it. Even if you're not able to volunteer as often like me, try volunteering for an event at your work, your kids school, or even a local organization.
Volunteering can teach you so many skills. And you can meet some amazing people.