5 Ways Volunteering Can Help Grow Your Business

You may want to volunteer for the good of your community. But here are 5 ways you can advance your business at the same time.
Author, Reinventing You, Harvard Business School Publishing
December 05, 2013

With the holiday season in full swing, it’s a natural time to think about helping others. It’s wonderful to donate your spare change to a charity, spend a day sorting canned goods at your local food pantry, or buy presents for a family in need.

But when you leverage the power of your business to volunteer, you can often gain exponential benefits—for yourself, your company and your professional future.

Here are five ways you can advance your business and help your community through volunteering.

Enhance Your Skills

As a small-business owner, it can be hard to take risks when you have to be so mindful of the bottom line. That’s why volunteering, especially by taking a seat on a nonprofit board, can be a fantastic way to learn new skills. Since you’re working for free, unless your idea is horrible, they’ll probably tell you to go for it—and that means you have the freedom to learn and experiment (with, for example, a new social media platform, Web hosting provider or direct mail strategy).

That was the case for Karin Turer, a small-business owner I profiled in my book, Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future. Through the skills she learned as a volunteer board member, she switched careers and moved into fundraising. Turner now operates her own event planning and fundraising consultancy.

Win Publicity

You didn’t start volunteering for the glory, but good PR is definitely a great side benefit. That’s what Dr. Mark Hassed discovered when he began providing free dental care for the poor in his home city of Melbourne, Australia.

“Once or twice a year, I used to open my office on a Saturday and do dental work totally free for people who were in need,” Hassed says. “On our first day, we helped more than 80 patients. Because we were doing it for free, local newspapers would write articles about us." 

Make New Contacts

It can sometimes be hard to connect with the powerbrokers in your community. Often, their networks are insular, and they’re zealously protected by gatekeepers. But one effective way to meet them—and connect as peers—is through volunteering for a charitable cause you both support.

Whether it’s organizing a fundraiser, serving on a board or participating in a cleanup day, your willingness to roll up your sleeves shows these new contacts that you share mutual interests and you’re a giver—and that’s the kind of person they’ll want to do business with.

Bolster Employee Morale

We all know it’s more satisfying to work for a company with a mission. Getting involved in a charitable cause—and allowing your employees to volunteer and participate—is a powerful boost for their happiness and morale. They’ll better understand the principles your company stands for (the ethos of helping others extends to the importance of good customer service), and they'll be even more excited to come to work.

Give Back To Your Community

As a local business, your relationship to your community is symbiotic—when they thrive, they’re more likely to support your business. So celebrate your success by giving back. It may not pay direct dividends, but you’ll surely see a benefit, says Hassed, the Australian dentist.

“We hardly got any of the people we treated on the charity days back as patients—they couldn't afford to pay,” he says. “But every time we had a charity day, we got hugely busy for several months after. I’m sure we made money by doing it, although that wasn’t our aim.”

As you consider ways to make a difference this holiday season, ask yourself, How can I make it a win-win for my community and my business?

Dorie Clark is a marketing strategist who teaches at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. Learn more about her new book, Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (Harvard Business Review Press), and follow her on Twitter.

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