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Lending your Skills to get Ahead – How to do ‘Strategic Volunteering’

Strategic volunteering can build your skills, be intellectually demanding and provide a route back to work after a career break. We hope this week’s second post by Jill Ridley-Smith will inspire you to explore this route further.
The new CEO of the £225 million turnover business turns to
us, the Board, saying he wants our input into the development of his five-year
strategic plan. He also wants to initiate an acquisition strategy to diversify
revenues because he’s worried the core business is too dependent on a single
source of income. His team have identified the first potential acquisition and
will present it to us for our consideration in the next meeting. He surmises
that his inherited management team and organisation structure aren’t right to
deliver the new plan; where are the gaps, strengths and weaknesses in the
senior team? He knows his top line is vulnerable as customers are increasingly
more discerning and demanding and the business needs to respond – well, given
students now have to pay University tuition fees this is hardly unexpected.
Yes, this is what it’s like being on the Board of Governors for one of the
largest Universities in the UK.
There are almost limitless possibilities in the non-profit
sector for individuals willing to give up some of their time and expertise –
boards of charities, sports bodies, education, and Government organisations to
name a few. These roles can be interesting, relevant, thought-provoking and
rewarding. The individuals who take them on are respected and appreciated. This
month on the website Women on Boards
there are 220 roles advertised and roughly two thirds of these are in
non-profit organisations. Most of these roles are pro-bono (i.e. unpaid), but
they often cover expenses.
As very few of us have the luxury of being able
to work for free, the clue is in the term ‘strategic’ – if you are considering
this type of volunteering as a route back into the workplace, it needs to be
volunteering with an agenda. This could be to take a role that leverages your
historical business experience, or if you are looking for a career change, a
role where you gain experience in a new sector; or it could simply be to get
back in touch with the working world and become current again.
As with every job search,
it’s improbable a CV enhancing role as a strategic volunteer will fall into
your lap. It requires re-engaging with your old business networks, getting out
there and making new connections; for instance, you could be very pleasantly
surprised by what can come from simply being sociable at the school gates. Be
mindful too that strategic volunteering roles are ‘proper’ jobs (to get one
you’ll need a good CV, references and to deliver at the interview) and these
roles carry considerable responsibility. When working on the Board of a charity
under the auspices of the Charity Commission or a public sector body that
manages Government money, the buck stops with you.
Boards must have good governance, appropriate risk measurement and assessment
and must sufficiently scrutinise financials and probe the operational decisions
of the management. As a good example, the Trustees of Kids Company simply did
not apply the necessary rigour required; this is an extract from the House of
Commons Committee report into the collapse of the business: “Trustees relied
upon wishful thinking and false optimism and became inured to the
precariousness of the charity’s financial situation.”
So, assuming you are not solely motivated by the social
cause, why strategically volunteer if it’s no easier to get a volunteering role
than a paid one and the role comes with a
weighty responsibility? Well, the attraction is in the relatively limited time
commitment for the intellectual return: the norm is quarterly meetings and
their prep, a few strategy days and a commitment to a few years’ service. When you’ve got very young children, time is
so precious and we all do our very best to juggle work and family life. For me,
at that time, strategic volunteering was a manageable commitment that kept me
on the career track. I started with one, then two strategic volunteering roles
and this has now morphed into fully ‘going plural’. It means that rather than
working full-time for one company, I’m self-employed and I have a number of
non-executive director positions with different companies.
I still do some unpaid business mentoring and I have one
pro-bono NED (Non-Executive Director) position
but it’s less of a means-to-an-end now so I can enjoy it for what it is and the
social benefit that comes from it. I lent my time to get ahead and it’s been a
win-win journey for me and the organisations I remain committed to.
Jill Ridley-Smith
works as a Business Mentor and is a Non-Executive Director on three Boards. She
took a career break in 2009 after a successful career in Private Equity with
HgCapital and prior to this she held management roles at GlaxoSmithKline and
LEK Consulting. She has an MBA from Kellogg Graduate School of Management. You can read more of Jill’s return to work story here.

For more information on becoming a trustee, also visit Getting on Board, a charity that helps individuals become new leaders in communities through board-level volunteering. Watch out for more information on their new campaign in early March that is aimed at encouraging women on a career break to take up charity board positions.

Posted by Muriel