Made it in the corporate world and want to give back? The volunteer sector is a totally different animal

PAUL HENG, NeXT Career, Singapore

MY VOLUNTEERISM journey started more than two decades ago. I was introduced to the Rotary movement around the time I launched my business.

People cautioned me about my timing – they said I would be busy with my business and would not be able to participate actively with Rotary.

On reflection today, joining Rotary and starting out on my entrepreneurship journey turned out to be two of my life’s better decisions. I did not have to struggle between managing my business and community work.

In fact, I think it was a blessing, as I was able to spend my time more meaningfully by striking a balance in my life.

Watching Singapore nurture its spirit of volunteerism

That was my beginning. Here in Singapore, community work began to pick up momentum when our schools began to focus on a more holistic approach towards education.

Students were encouraged to allocate a portion of their time to community work, on top of performing well academically.

Assessment criteria for awards given out to outstanding students began to assign greater weightage to community work and leadership.

As a panel member of my Rotary club’s scholarship and bursary awards committee, we interviewed shortlisted students and took into consideration three main criteria: academic performance, community work, and leadership qualities.

The corporate world also got involved. Recruiters and hiring managers started to emphasise that they were looking for candidates with more than just the right academic fit or work experience for the job.

The term “corporate social responsibility” was born; allocating time to give back to society became critical.

Companies started to realise that shareholders were looking for not just dividends, but also the company’s involvement in community work. It was the right mix for branding.

The intended message: we are not just operating our business to make money, we also care about the less-privileged in society.

And so over the years, I’ve definitely seen an increase in the volunteerism rate throughout Singapore’s society.

How, when, and where does one start volunteering?

I tend to get a similar response each time I ask: “How are you giving back to society?”

“Volunteer? Sure, when I retire and have more time.”

Any time is a good time, I feel. I shared earlier that I began my journey around the same time I started my business.

It’s all about being practical and striking a balance.

The bigger question for most people is: “I don’t know where to begin, which cause should I support?”

When I started, my soft spot was for kids. I chose the Make-A-Wish Foundation, and an orphanage.

So identify the group that you are passionate about supporting and approach the relevant organisations to explore how you can make a difference.

If I was a leader in the corporate world, should I lend my leadership skills to a charitable organisation?

With the organisations that I volunteer in, I mostly started as a hands-on volunteer, at the “entry” level.

With the Make-A-Wish Foundation, I joined as a wish granter, making children’s wishes come true.

As I got more involved, I took on leadership roles in fundraising, and progressed to board leadership roles.

There was also a period when I led community-based projects, raising funds for an orphanage in Chiang Mai as well as for children in need here in Singapore. I also organised outings for groups of elderly confined to wheelchairs to see the Orchard Road Christmas lights.

At Dementia Singapore, volunteers are encouraged to contribute as members of a committee of their choice – fundraising, and finance and audit are some examples.

I find this approach beneficial to both parties (the organisation and the volunteer) to “try each other out”, for a probation period of sorts, for at least six to nine months.

If there’s a mutual fit and both parties feel comfortable with each other, they can then explore how else and in what capacity the volunteer can continue contributing.

This might include a board role, should there be mutual interest.

Ultimately, what I would say is take your time – it is not a race, and you want to make an impact, not only to have something nice to put on your LinkedIn profile and resume. You might be a top executive at your organisation or a founder of a business, but this does not in itself guarantee that you will be successful in the world of volunteerism.

Similar to the corporate world, those that rise up through the ranks tend to make better leaders, having the benefit of a solid foundation and understanding of the organisation and how it operates.

But here’s the nub of why leading a charitable organisation is entirely different from a corporation

Soldiers have to follow the instructions of their officer-in-charge.

Employees of a business organisation report directly or indirectly to the CEO of a company.

Leaders in a social service organisation do not have similar power over volunteers. They cannot exercise their position’s power in an absolute sense.

Volunteers will say goodbye, or even something unpleasant to your ears, without a second thought. If they dislike you, or your style, they will go volunteer somewhere else.

This is the greatest challenge of a voluntary leader.

A voluntary leader has to adopt a style that is inspiring, persuasive and influencing. It is demanding being a leader in this sector, but at least for me, the learning is humbling.

What I’ve learnt over the years is it is better to adopt an attitude of “we are all volunteers. Let’s work together to contribute to our beneficiaries”.

This also calls for a shift in thinking – you don’t make money for the social service agency you volunteer with; you raise funds. You don’t manage a team; you inspire one.

You can firmly tell a team in your business to “learn to work together, or else”, but you cannot say the same thing to volunteers who do not see eye to eye.

You need to be the mediator and help them to re-direct their focus on why they volunteer to begin with.

And above all, in managing conflicts, it’s even more imperative in a charitable organisation to be objective, and not take things personally.

Servant leadership, and dealing with politics

While there are many ways to lead in a volunteer capacity, the approach I choose is servant leadership. This means putting others ahead of our own interests, to serve others as a priority – most apt when you are a voluntary leader in a social services organisation.

Most of us volunteer so that we can make a difference to others, and this can only happen if you consider the needs of those you are helping. This approach also helps when encountering politics, which can be particularly gratifying to experience as a volunteer.

The way to cope, I’ve learnt, is to go back to basics, and remind yourself why you are volunteering to begin with.

As long as you are able to do this and set aside your pride, you will know what to do about the politics. Yes, put them on the back-burner and continue serving.

The litmus test is always this – if you are unhappy and not enjoying yourself with any group of volunteers, exercise your right to do your volunteering somewhere else.

Want to lead? Go back to the classroom

For any leader, continuous learning is essential. Attend courses at the Singapore Institute of Directors, and the National Council of Social Service. A director on a voluntary board has to learn about the fiduciary responsibilities of one.

There are grave consequences for mismanagement, including being hauled to court, and you cannot say “I wasn’t aware”.

Ultimately, as a voluntary leader, you need to behave like one, with the key difference being that you need to leave your ego at the door.

The writer volunteers with Dementia Singapore as a board member. He also chairs its human resources committee, and is a member of its nomination committee.

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