Volunteer has always been a core part of my identify. Growing up I heard stories of various family members and what they did publicly to make the community better and behind the scenes to help individuals. From a great Uncle who let folks pay for groceries with a chicken to my grandmother who convinced a local dentist to care for some of her elementary school children’s dental emergencies at no cost. I saw my parents in action in the community. Dad was board president of Peninsula Pastoral Counseling Center, a nonprofit organization that offers professional counseling and consultation in a faith context. Mom donated groceries to the food bank, baked cookies for inmates, gave clothes to the thrift shop, and donated to NPR, among other activities. Basically, part of being an Oehler is to be a volunteer.
My volunteer history includes nonprofits, church, schools, military, and professional associations. Each one enabling me to both learn and give back; as well as build a network of compassionate experts.
- Florida International University, Women’s Executive Leadership Program (Advisory Board)
- Mary Baldwin University (Community Advisory Board and Alumni Association Board of Directors)
- National Association of State Directors of Veterans Affairs (strategic planner)
- American Corporate Partners (service member mentor)
- Hiring Our Heroes (Corporate Fellow mentor)
- Junior League of Northern Virginia (President)
- Living Vicky (Board of Directors’ Chairperson)
- Child and Family Network Centers (Board of Directors)
- Public Relations Society of America (mentor)
While the “giving back” vibe is great, volunteering – for me – has also been about receiving. Specifically, gaining experiences to learn new skills, move into management, and expand my resume with proven outcomes. Volunteering gave me a sandbox where I could grow as a communications expert, improve my business management skills, and hone my leadership style… all without the fear of failing at work. Without the added pressure of a work environment, when everything is tied to your next performance review, I found I feel emboldened to try new things, and to do so in a way that is more authentic to me – rather than the cookie cutter model of how it “should” be done.
Volunteering also gave me more opportunities. At work, opportunities can be limited to someone with the right title, college education, or demographic. There are spoken and unspoken rules of who can do what and when. Volunteering offers a fast track to growth such as me being President of a nonprofit when I was 30. I oversaw the finances, membership, community service, communications, and planning – everything a CEO does. In my 10-year path to President of the Junior League, I designed and implemented a 50-person new-membership training program; led corporate communications from the newsletter to media relations; created a new fundraiser; established a new community advisory board; designed and facilitated offsites; spoke at events; and presided over countless meetings – all in my 20’s. All things that easily translated over into my professional life. I can’t think of a paid job that gives that many opportunities to learn, do, and lead so quickly.
Volunteering is about community. The one you want to improve and the one you’re in to do so. As a volunteer I built a broad network, both of friends and professional allies. For me, volunteering offers a space to be more authentic alongside others who are passionate about a cause. The connections from volunteering seem to endure as we are connected through passion, mission, and impact.
Being a volunteer does change the world. It helps those in need. It helps the organization with limited resources. It helps you build yourself.
What can you help change as a volunteer?