When I first moved up to Seattle, I was a self-proclaimed “professional volunteer.” I loved finding organizations and helping them. Managing social media accounts, putting stamps on invitations, sorting wigs—I did it all. I like to think that my volunteering made a long-term impact with these organizations but I can’t say that for sure. I know my help was appreciated but likely forgotten once a new crop of volunteers came through the door.
I have less time to volunteer these days, so I’m now focused on making sure my efforts support the organization in a meaningful way. There is nothing wrong with putting stamps on letters or tracking names in a spreadsheet, but you can have a bigger impact when you focus on setting up successful processes that make the organization better in the long-term.
I recently came across an article about Toyota’s work with the Food Bank For New York City. Rather than write a check, Toyota offered to share its knowledge of kaizen with the Food Bank. Kaizen, which I learned about during my days at Boeing, is a Japanese word meaning “continuous improvement.” It’s an effort to optimize flow and quality by constantly looking for ways to improve. Toyota’s offer was aimed at helping the nonprofit serve more people, more efficiently by searching for ways to streamline their process.
It worked. The Food Bank was able to speed up services and slash wait times at its soup kitchen and warehouse.
I love that Toyota’s employees shared their professional knowledge—that’s what’s missing for a lot of organizations. Volunteers can have an enormous impact on an organization’s well-being and culture, but volunteers need to be committed to making the best use of their time. They need to understand the goals of the organization and convey their skills to the organization.
If you want to volunteer and make an impact, it’s your responsibility to figure out how you can best help. For example, if you’re a writer, don’t just volunteer to write a couple of posts for the newsletter or website. You could also help create processes to make content development run smoother—like building an editorial calendar or interviewing board members for future stories. A writer could also help develop a content strategy and develop a process to get stakeholders to contribute to the organization’s blog.
Sometimes, we can get stuck on “task list” mode. Instead, we should focus on looking for opportunities to help meet the organization’s long-term objectives and find ways to help the organization think outside the box. Organizations can help foster this environment by being open to new ideas, listening to their volunteers, and helping them feel empowered to act on their ideas. This way, it’s a win-win situation.