OK, so volunteering is a good thing. It helps our neighbors, our communities and our country. Each year, many of us do it, in one form or another. In fact, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, around 63.4 million people in the U.S. volunteered last year. That’s 26 percent of the population.
So why do all these folks volunteer? Because, they get more out of it then they put into it. Clearly you feel good (that is a HUGE benefit). But you can also express yourself, you can get exercise, you can make new friends... and now add this one to the list: you can learn to be an amazing entrepreneur.
I experienced it first hand by spending a few days planning and then working at the food bank in my community. Man oh man, did I experience some hardcore business lessons. And so will you…
Going into volunteering, you may think you’re going to do some work to help others and earn some brownie points. But if you really want to see what being an entrepreneur is all about, volunteering in a leadership position will give you important insights into what it is like to run a business and rely upon others to have your mission carried out.
Getting others to do the things you want or need them to do is hard enough when you’re paying them. When they are simply volunteering their time, it becomes a whole new ballgame, one that requires inspiration and clarity in the common vision in order to effectively lead them and meet all the objectives.
Here are the important things that volunteering will teach you about entrepreneurship, including:
- Focus. How easy it is to get off track! As people work, they often get distracted. This is especially true with volunteering. The people who know each other (and those who don’t) get sidetracked into conversation, and the work grinds to a halt. The lesson here is to go in prepared. You can’t whip volunteers (or employees), or hold a performance bonus over their heads. You need to find a way to support both rapport among the team and getting the work done.
- Listen. You will also learn, when volunteering, that everyone has a better or new idea. Again, everyone is a volunteer and wants to show their significance. So ideas (as dumb as some are) come fast and furious. You’ll need to learn to acknowledge their input while focusing that energy on going about the work in one consistent way.
- Recognize. Want to keep your volunteers motivated? Lavish them with praise and recognition for their efforts and for a job well done. But only use this to reinforce the good things.
The Hardest Lessons
The hardest and most important lesson you can learn from volunteer work is that you aren’t all that important. Kind of humbling, isn’t it? But seriously, I had to step away for an hour during my volunteer project and, sure enough, productivity actually hummed along (even increased) when I was not there. The lesson here is that you, as an entrepreneur, need to set the course, get people fired up, and then, for God’s sake, get out of the way.
Volunteering to organize something for your community may not put money in your pocket. But there is a good chance it can help you become a more insightful business leader, as it did me. By honing in on the important lessons that you learn as a volunteer, you can use what you learned to work with your own employees. And those lessons may just take your business to the next level, which is priceless.
Mike Michalowicz is the Author of the business cult-classic, The Toilet Paper Entrepreneur and is a columnist for the Wall Street Journal. Michalowicz has built three multi-million dollar companies, is a frequent expert guest on MSNBC, CNBC, ABC and other television networks, and is a nationally renowned speaker. His website is http://www.ToiletPaperEntrepreneur.comand his book is available at Amazon.com and all major book stores.