Accelerate: Giving Back, Moving Forward

Volunteers make the world a better place—and they can see career benefits along the way

By Kimberly Olson

Have you considered pitching in at your local food bank? Becoming a weekend coach for a job-training nonprofit? Offering your social media skills pro bono to an environmental group?

Volunteering for a cause you care deeply about has an impact—on both the community you’re serving and yourself. People who volunteer are more satisfied with their lives and report better mental health than their non-volunteering peers, according to an 18-year study of nearly 70,000 people published in the Journal of Happiness Studies. Part of the reason is that doing good works releases dopamine, a “feel-good” hormone that reduces stress and heightens positive, relaxed feelings.

Volunteering might even give you a career boost. When you’re vying for a new position, for example, listing volunteer work on your résumé helps you stand out from the crowd.

“It definitely resonates with us,” says Marlo Gaal, chief people and diversity officer at Oncourse Home Solutions in the Chicagoland area. “It’s certainly intriguing. We don’t necessarily think about it as culture fit. We look for culture adds and culture enhancement, and people who are committed to volunteering in their communities are certainly culture adds for us. It helps to showcase what’s important to you. We’re committed to investing our time, resources, and capital in communities where we work and live. So we like to see that organically in prospective folks looking to join Oncourse.”

Denise Shepherd, national DEI director at Deloitte, feels similarly. “One of the things Deloitte looks for in candidates is the impact they’ve had on their colleagues, their organizations, and their communities,” she says. “Community work can tell us a lot about a candidate and often shows their leadership strengths in areas outside of their professional career.”

The empathy advantage

Community work is well regarded, in part because volunteering is associated with kindness and compassion. “If you’re helping people who are down on their luck, you’re seeing how they’re persevering,” says Elena Arney, senior director of PR & Partnerships at Crosschq, a hiring-intelligence software company. Arney, who has also worked in HR, says, “When you hire someone who has been in those environments, they’ve learned those skills being a volunteer or just seeing those they are helping, and they have empathy.”

Marlo Gaal, who volunteers for various causes, agrees. “I do it because I care, and I know those folks who are volunteering with me, arm in arm, are doing it because they care,” she says. “That is a particular competency that is transferable because empathy is one of our super values [at Oncourse].”

“Empathy is one of the top things that company leaders are looking for, especially in managers,” Arney says. “We’re definitely seeing that becoming more apparent, and companies are talking more openly about how that’s a value now.”

Empathy has become a prized trait for good reason. EY’s 2021 Empathy in Business report, for which more than 1,000 employees were surveyed, found that authentic empathy in the workplace helps create a sense of psychological safety and fosters an experiential culture. That finding is bolstered by a Catalyst study of 900 employees, in which 61 percent of those with highly empathetic senior leaders reported being innovative at work always or often, compared with just 13 percent of employees who had less empathetic senior leaders.

Companies that promote empathy might even be more attractive to top talent. Businessolver’s 2023 State of Workplace Empathy report revealed that 82 percent of employees would consider leaving their job to join a more empathetic organization.

Problem-solving chops

Volunteering also provides an opportunity to connect with people from different backgrounds who’ve had varied experiences. “Community work can bring new perspectives and inspiration for future initiatives that likely would not have occurred without that community work,” says Jasmyn Ferris, chief people operations officer at iSeatz, a provider of loyalty tech solutions. “It offers a nearly endless variety of transferable skills, many of which are applicable at any stage in your career—customer service, teamwork, communication, and more.”

“[Volunteer work] does give you perspective and opens your mind to different ways of solving problems,” Arney says. “Ultimately it makes you a better leader.”

So it’s not surprising that in a Deloitte Impact Survey of 2,506 people involved in hiring, 82 percent said they would be more likely to select a job candidate who had volunteer experience on their résumé. And 85 percent said they’d be willing to overlook flaws on a résumé if the candidate listed volunteer work.

Those who volunteer may also have an advantage as they progress their careers. In the Deloitte survey, 80 percent of respondents said that active volunteers more easily move into leadership roles.

Women who are in the beginnings of their career should highlight any community work they might have done through their college sorority. “It shows you have servant-leadership team building [skills], that no task is too small—those are qualities that employers are looking for,” says Arney, whose own sorority supported Ronald McDonald House.

Community connections

Working alongside others for a common cause can also forge strong bonds. Those relationships can be personally gratifying and, in some cases, career relevant.

“Our senior executive assistant to our CEO is a veteran, and she also does a great amount of volunteer work in the veteran space,” Gaal says. “We are on the verge of launching our veterans employee business resource group, and she’s already come in with a wealth of connections and opportunity for us to partner with, so it’s pretty cool to see.”

Serving on a charitable board is a great way to make meaningful alliances. “On these charitable boards, there are often people who have been there, who have connections to other people, who could provide direction and possibly see your talents and skills and create openings for you in other areas,” says Gaal.

Several years ago, for example, Gaal served on the board of the People’s Music School, which hosted an event with a Chicago-based organization focused on women in STEM. At that time, [Chicago mayor] Rahm Emanuel’s wife, Amy Rule, was also on the board. “She was very generous with her time, her incredible intellect, and her wise counsel,” Gaal says. “I was able to call and pick her brain about lots of things that I was considering while evolving my career, and it happened because we were both committed to women in STEM.” She points out that serving on a board also helps women gain credibility, as it demonstrates that others value their opinion.

Denise Shepherd serves on the board of the Deloitte Foundation, which helps prepare students, especially those from racially and ethnically diverse backgrounds, for careers in business, accounting, and STEM. She is also on the board of the National Coalition of 100 Black Women Inc. (with the Sacramento chapter), a community nonprofit for which she primarily focuses on increasing economic mobility for underserved communities. “Serving the community has been pivotal to my professional and personal development,” Shepherd says. “[My board work is] directly relevant to the work I now do as our national DEI leader. These and my other volunteer roles keep me connected to the community and give me a grounded view of continuing to drive equitable outcomes within my organization and in society at large. I believe this has been a key differentiator as I’ve advanced at Deloitte.”

When choosing a volunteer opportunity, hiring managers advise setting aside your career strategies and letting your heart be your guide. “On those days when I’m dog-dead tired and would rather have Netflix and pj’s by myself, I get up and push through because I’m personally committed to the mission of the organization,” Gaal says. “So just get in, do it, have it be meaningful to you, and all the gifts will follow.” DW

“Community work can tell us a lot about a candidate and often shows their leadership strengths in areas outside of their professional career.”



Do-Gooder Companies

Nearly half of US companies offered community volunteer programs in 2022, up from 40 percent in 2014. They organize employee volunteer activities and, in many cases, offer workers paid time off to volunteer.

Outdoor clothing company Patagonia has an environmental internship program that enables employees to take two months off—with pay and benefits—to work for their favorite environmental group.

Every year, Salesforce employees get seven paid days off to volunteer. The cloud-based software company encourages employees to harness their technical and professional skills to make an impact in ways that are meaningful to them.

Brewing company Heineken organizes an annual Day of Giving event, during which employees volunteer in their local community. Heineken employees have delivered holiday meals, raised money for a charitable cause, and brought a fire-damaged garden in the South Bronx back to life.

Industrial solutions provider Ingersoll Rand works on impactful engineering projects for underserved communities around the world. Employees have joined forces with Engineers Without Borders to restore water and sanitation to a health center in Uganda, for example, and have partnered with Drop in the Bucket to build water wells and sanitation systems at schools in sub-Saharan Africa.

“[Volunteer work] does give you perspective and opens your mind to different ways of solving problems. Ultimately it makes you a better leader.”

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