• It rarely pays but the point is giving your time, energy to do something you believe in
Mention the word 'volunteering' and the first thing that comes to the minds of most people is charity. Indeed, charity is part of it, but volunteering goes way beyond doing good deeds.
The National Council for Voluntary Organisations describes volunteering as spending unpaid time doing something to benefit others. Volunteering can be formal through organisations or informal within communities. It's the result of a free choice made by the person donating their time. Helping your close friends or relatives doesn't qualify as volunteering.
From a career perspective, volunteering is a means of using your skills to help the community, changing something for the better, learning new skills and continuing one's professional development.
Mike Eldon, a Nairobi-based expert on leadership and training, says in his blog that there's no better way of accelerating personal development than by joining volunteer activities, and the earlier one does so the better.
"For here, one is exposed to projects and committees, to managing people and funds, while learning about policies and programmes, meetings and minutes, and so much more about leadership," Eldon says.
John Mlamba, director of climate change and environment at the county government of Taita Taveta, got into environmental matters through volunteer work. Having graduated in 1997, Mlamba went for several years without a steady job. At some point, he heard about a volunteering opportunity near his rural home.
The job involved working with teams of local and foreign professors who were in Kenya to study the natural environment around Tsavo National Park. "The exposure to those experts opened my eyes to involving communities in environmental matters," Mlamba recalls. Over the years, he worked with communities and NGOs before landing his current position in the county government.
Mlamba's experience is a good example of how volunteering can shape an individual's career in unexpected directions. It further confirms Mike Eldon's view that volunteering provides valuable exposure that can help one cope with future leadership responsibilities.
Some organisations give volunteers a stipend, but it is worth remembering that the whole essence of volunteering is giving your time and energy in the service of something you believe in. As a volunteer, you are not an employee and should, therefore, neither expect employee benefits nor be treated like an employee. Not every volunteering opportunity will be the big break you are looking for, but it will at least give you some work experience.
For the unemployed, volunteering is an excellent way of keeping busy and avoiding the pitfalls of idleness. Volunteering will help expand the circle of people you know, which, in turn, could increase the chances of someone informing you about potential employers. It's also a good way of keeping your skills up to date.
Volunteering shouldn't be something only for the unemployed. Even the employed can dedicate some time and energy to helping their community. A good example is an accountant volunteering to scrutinise the financial records of his or her place of worship. Joining the committee of the local resident’s association is also part of volunteering.